Keep Your Credit Card Safe Online -- and OffKim Boatman
The scenarios are all too familiar to many of us:
In the confusion of collecting your purchase at a local shop, you leave your credit card with the sales clerk.
Thieves rifle through your mail, taking your credit card information.
A server at a restaurant takes your credit card to close out your bill. Later, you find unauthorized charges on your monthly credit card statement.
Credit card fraud has exploded, thanks to our widespread use of credit cards -- and the ever-evolving ingenuity of the bad guys. Malicious mischief involving credit cards is central to identity theft, which accounted for almost a third of the 800,000 consumer complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission last year.
Identity theft has surged with the widespread use of the Internet. Identity thieves now create malicious software programs to capture the account information and passwords of unsuspecting Internet users as you shop online, conduct your banking or respond to phony emails requesting account number confirmation. Your credit card number may wind up being sold on an underground market, where thieves from all over the world can buy your number and start making charges on your account.
By some estimates, credit card fraud affects as many as one in 20 consumers. Although your financial liability for fraudulent charges might be limited, there’s still good reason to work hard to protect your credit card numbers. Clearing your good name -- and your credit history -- is quite a headache. It can take as many as 60 hours of your hard work, calling creditors and the like, to repair the damage, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
While it’s impossible to guarantee you won’t be the victim of credit card fraud, you can work to protect yourself. Here are 11 smart ways you can secure your credit cards:
- Clam up. Never, never, never reveal personal financial information, such as your credit card number, over the phone or via email. No reputable institution will ever solicit your information in a phone conversation or through email, say experts. The only exception is when you initiate the call. A popular email scam is called "phishing," in which solicitations are made to appear as if they are coming from your bank or other financial institution saying that you need to correct an error. These emails ask for account information or direct you to a fake website that captures this information as you log in.
- Write AID or SID on the signature panel of the card. By now, almost all of us know to sign the back of credit cards as soon as we receive them. Keith Givens, a spokesman for Washington Mutual Bank card services, advises writing AID (ask for ID) or SID (see ID) on the panel rather than signing your card. That reminds retailers to ask for another form of ID to confirm the identity of the credit-card user, says Givens.
- Watch for shoulder-surfers. Be wary of people looking over your shoulder as you pull out credit cards. “A lot of credit card numbers get stolen just from someone looking over your shoulder and writing the number down,’’ says Lyn Chitow Oakes, chief marketing officer for TrustedID, an identity theft protection company. “Cover and shield the number.”
- Secure your computer. Anti-virus and anti-spyware programs are important if you will be shopping over the Internet, banking online, or maintaining personal information on your computer. In addition to protecting you from such programs as "key loggers," which capture the key strokes as you type in account numbers and passwords, these programs can also prevent your computer from being turned into a "zombie" controlled by a hacker's computer to perform nefarious tasks.
- Be a shredder. Buy a shredder and be conscientious in its use. Thieves troll through garbage looking for credit card numbers. Be sure to shred unsolicited credit card offers as well. However, save your credit card receipts and don’t shred them until you’ve reconciled them against your monthly statement. The same is true about online receipts; after you reconcile these with your statement, you may want to delete them from your computer.
- Don't leave credit card info on your computer. Particularly if you use a laptop, which is often an item targeted by thieves, don't leave your credit card number and information on your computer. This applies to your email inbox, as well as any document files you may keep on your computer. This is also true for desktop computers, particularly when they may be accessible to a roommate, to your children's friends, to a housekeeper, and so on.
- Know who you are buying from. Particularly over the Internet, where you may not be able to physically visit a store or speak with a merchant, do your homework before you offer up your credit card number. Check out the online merchant with the Better Business Bureau or do a Web search to see if there have been any published complaints about credit card scams involving the merchant. Sites such as eBay provide feedback from buyers about their experiences and also do due diligence before authorizing a merchant to sell through their site. Offline, you may want to patronize restaurants that let you swipe your card.
- Designate an online credit card. Using just one card for online transactions can make it simpler to track fraud, says Oakes.
- File your number. Make sure you have your credit card numbers and contact information for the credit card companies filed in a secure location. If you are a victim of credit card fraud, you’ll find it easier to call and advise the companies if the information is at hand.
- Travel smart. If you’re traveling internationally, only take the card or cards you plan to use, Givens says. If it’s unusual for you to travel or you’re visiting a new destination, it’s a good idea to let your credit card company know, Oakes says. You don’t want to find yourself in Prague without credit because your credit card company has stopped activity on your account. And it's never a good idea to pay bills online at a shared public computer or on your own computer over a public wireless Internet, or Wi-Fi, connection, unless you are sure the network is secure or you are using a virtual private network (VPN). To tell if a Wi-Fi network is secure, when you go to log on to the network it will say whether it is secure and you will need a password to use the network.
- Sign up for electronic fraud alerts. Some companies offer alerts, delivering information about unusual activity on your account to your cell phone or email address.
Vigilance requires some effort, but it’s worth your while, says Givens. His daughter was victimized when a college roommate found her credit card information on the laptop she borrowed. The roommate opened new credit cards and ordered a cell phone before she was arrested. “It’s a big hassle to get that cleaned up,” he says.
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