Information technology provides potential thieves with a number of tools to use to steal your credit card numbers. Here’s how they do it, and what you can do to protect your card.
Tools of the Trade: Phishing, Spyware, Skimming and Hacking
How do credit card numbers get stolen? Here are six well-known ways:
Mail and trash are the old-fashioned hazards. Thieves can access information from your paper statements such as the last four digits of your account number, your full name and address as well as transaction information.
Phishing emails and phone calls are a common tactic used to attempt to access someone’s sensitive personal and financial information, such as credit card and social security numbers. If you ever get an email or phone call that is asking you to submit highly sensitive information directly, it is most likely not legitimate. Most financial institution will never ask you to send your information via email or over the phone. Keep an eye out for email addresses and phone numbers that are generic and that do not appear to come from your financial service provider. That is often a clear sign of phishing.
Spyware and malware are other risks credit card holders should be aware of. Be careful what you click on or download. Thieves can embed programs on your computer that will record your every keystroke, including your credit card number as you type it into an order form. Do not download anything on your computer unless you have validated or otherwise trust where it’s coming from.
Public WiFi is awfully handy, but it can open you up to the possibility of fraud. Do not open sensitive documents or financial websites on public networks, as this is how hackers can access your account numbers and passwords.
Card skimmers are devices that will allow thieves to capture the digital information embedded in credit cards. They may be used by the waiter that you’ve given your card to pay the bill, or sneakily slipped into the credit card reader or some other automated device.
Data breaches are another way thieves can get your credit card number. Many large institutions — from banks to major retailers — have reported that their customers’ data has been stolen. The nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearing House says that nearly a billion records have been compromised since 2005, and those are just the records that have been reported.
What You Can Do to Protect Your Card
Be mindful of all the ways thieves can get your credit card numbers and be aware of when you’re vulnerable. Watch your mail, be careful interacting with emails, know what you’re downloading, don’t open your financial accounts on public WiFi networks, look carefully for signs of tampering at gas pumps and other automated credit card readers, and watch the news for data breaches at big companies — they happen more than you might think.
Most credit cards use chip technology, rather than a magnetic strip, as these are designed to be more difficult to hack for in-store purchases where chip readers are enabled. Of course, this is no guarantee, either, because with every new security measure, hackers find new countermeasures. Despite the new chips, instances of credit card fraud keeps going up every year — while the chips make in-store fraud more difficult, potential identity thieves are upping their game online.
The best advice is to keep your eyes on your credit card statements, credit report and credit score, so you will be aware of any sudden changes that could indicate identity theft.
What You Should Do If This Happens to You
Federal law can limit the amount of money you are liable for in the event of identity theft, so long as you respond quickly. Also, some credit card issuers are all too aware of the problem and may voluntarily agree to limit losses and help consumers.
Make sure your credit card issuer is made aware of the problem immediately. The Federal Trade Commission recommends that consumers also let the three major credit reporting agencies know about the fraud, and then file an initial fraud alert on their credit files.
The FTC has published a detailed consumer-friendly guide for what to do in almost every case of identity fraud.
Millions of American consumers have been through this. Stay alert to the possibility that it could happen to you, even after taking every precaution, and plan to take action quickly to limit the losses and regain your identity.