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Last fall, I received an email that appears to be from my web host. The email said there was a problem with my billing information and asked me to update it. I clicked the link in the email and entered my credit card number thinking that a recent change to my website must have caused a problem.
The next morning I logged into my credit card account and found two large unauthorized purchases. A fraudster had successfully stolen my payment information from me.
This failure of security is quite embarrassing for a personal finance writer. I know better than clicking through an email link claiming to be from my bank, credit card bank, or other financial institution. But because the email came from an unspecific financial source (and because I was thinking about the changes I’d made to my website the day before), I let myself play.
Fortunately, since I check my credit card balance daily, the scammers didn’t get away with it. However, it’s better to be proactive about avoiding credit card theft so you don’t get stuck with the cleanup that took me several months to complete.
This is how you can protect yourself against credit card theft.
Protect your physical credit card
Theft of your physical credit or debit card is in some ways the easiest way for a scammer to get your sweet, sweet money. With the actual card, a fraudster has all the information he needs to make fraudulent purchases: the credit card number, the expiration date and the security code on the back.
That means keeping your physical cards safe is one of the best ways to protect yourself against credit card theft. Do not carry more cards with you than you want to use. If you have every card you own in a bulging wallet, the more likely someone could steal one if you’re not careful, and you may not realize it’s gone when you have multiple cards.
Another common place that you may get disconnected from your card is in a restaurant. After paying your bill, it can be easy to forget you put your card away (especially if you’ve been enjoying adult drinks). So make it a habit to make sure you have your card before leaving a restaurant.
If you find that you are missing a credit or debit card, call your bank immediately to report it as lost or stolen. The faster you block the card, the less likely the scammers will be able to make fraudulent charges. Make sure you have your bank phone number written down somewhere so you can reach them quickly if your card is stolen or lost. (See also: Don’t Panic: Do This If Your Identity Is Stolen)
Recognize map skimmers
Credit card thieves also go high tech to get your information. Credit card skimmers are small devices that are placed in a legitimate location for a card reader, e.g. B. at a gas pump or an ATM.
When you scan your card for payment, the skimmer captures all of the information stored on your card’s magnetic stripe. In some cases, when a skimmer is placed at an ATM, there is also a tiny camera that records your PIN entry so the scammer has all the information they need to access your account.
The good news is that it is possible to spot a card skimmer in the wild. Gas stations and ATMs are the most common places you will see skimmer equipment. In general, these devices often protrude beyond the panel instead of sitting flush with it like the legitimate credit card scanner is supposed to do. Other warning signs to look out for include scanners that wobble or move slightly instead of being firmly attached, or a pin pad that appears thicker than normal. All of these can potentially indicate the presence of a skimmer.
If you find something that looks funky, go to another gas station or ATM. Better safe than sorry. (See Also: 18 Surprising Ways Your Identity Can Be Stolen)
Protect your credit card numbers at home
Your home is another place where thieves look for your sensitive information. To begin with, you will likely receive credit card offers, the cards themselves, and your bank statements in the mail. While mail theft is relatively rare (it’s a federal crime after all), it’s still a good idea to make sure that you pick up your mail every day and have it in hand when you leave town.
However, once you have your card related papers around, you can still be vulnerable. Because credit card fraudsters don’t go through a little dumpster diving to get their hands on your credit card number. For this reason, it is a good idea to shred any paper containing your credit card number and other identifying information before throwing it away.
Finally, protecting your credit cards at home also means being careful who you share information with over the phone. Unless you made a call of your own accord – not because you called someone who left voicemail – you should never give your credit card numbers over the phone. Scammers pretend to be a customer service representative for your financial institution or a merchant whom you visit frequently to get your payment information. Of course, you can hang up on the main number and call the institution.
Protect your cards online
You should never provide your credit card information via a link in an email purporting to be from your financial institution or merchant. Scammers can make their fake emails and websites look legitimate and that was exactly why I fell victim to this scam.
But even with my current misjudgment that I was being asked for my payment information by my “web host”, there were other warning signs that I could have heeded had I been careful.
The first is the actual email address. These fake emails often have a legitimate looking display name, which is the only thing you could see on your email. However, if you hover over or click the display name, you can see the actual email address that sent you the message. Illegal addresses do not have the same email address format that you see from the legitimate company.
Additionally, just looking at the url that was displayed when I clicked the link could have told me that something strange was going on. Every legitimate website that needs your financial information has a secure URL to accept your payment. Secure URLs start with https: // (instead of http: //) and have a lock symbol in the browser bar. If these items are missing, you should not enter your credit card information. (See Also: 3 Ways Millennials Can Avoid Financial Fraud)
Daily Practices That Will Keep You Safe
In addition to these precautionary measures, you can also protect your credit cards through the day-to-day decisions you make. For example, using strong, unique passwords for all of your online financial services, from shopping to banking, can help prevent theft. Keeping these strong passwords safe – that is, not writing them down on a post-it note on your laptop – will help protect your financial information.
Regularly checking your credit card and bank statements can also help ensure that you are the only one using your credit cards to make purchases. It was this daily habit of mine that ensured that my scammers didn’t actually get the computer they wanted to buy with my credit card. The fact that I check my balance on a daily basis meant that I could stop the fraudulent sale before they received the goods, even though I had let my credit card information be protected.
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