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The good news is that there are many ways to help safeguard yourself and help better prevent identity theft when paying with plastic. The key is to avoid the places and ways of paying that put you at highest risk of fraud.
First, remember that although they look similar, debit and credit cards are different. Unlike a credit card, a debit card is essentially a direct line to your bank account, so you may need to be more careful when using it to make purchases. Money is deducted directly from your bank or credit union account when you use your debit card. If a fraudster gets hold of your debit card account number and uses it, the money may disappear from your account immediately. Your financial institution may guarantee that it will refund your money if you’re a victim of fraud, but that can take time, according to the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC).
With a credit card, you’re essentially using a line of credit that you’ll pay back later, so you have time to check your statement and notice fraudulent use of your card. Also, most credit card issuers will immediately and temporarily remove fraudulent charges from your account when you report them. If you make a report within the required 60 days, your loss could be minimal—possibly zero, but no more than $50, according to the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA).
That said, there are a few places where you should be extremely cautious about swiping your cards:
1.Gas stations. It’s relatively easy and fairly common for thieves to attach skimmers (electronic devices that record your card number) to gas pumps or payment registers, according to Consumer Reports. Your best option is to pay for gas in cash or to use a credit card so you can monitor and contest any illegal transactions. If you absolutely must use a debit card, Consumer Reports suggests selecting the option to have the charge processed as a credit card transaction so you won’t have to enter your personal identification number (PIN). You may also want to consider using your card to pay the attendant inside the gas station, though this doesn’t remove all risk. The attendant could be using a skimmer behind the counter.
2.Restaurants that remove your card from your view. Several years ago, I interviewed someone who traced an incident of fraud to a local restaurant. He learned from law enforcement that whenever waitstaff remove your card from your table to process it, there’s a chance of them taking a quick picture of your card or skimming your personal information from it with a handheld device. The PRC agrees and suggests not using debit cards at restaurants at all. Credit cards and cash are safer options.
3.Online retailers. Thieves are getting sophisticated at hacking retail websites and stealing consumers’ personal and payment information. Several security experts have told me that they would avoid using a debit card for online transactions because the linked bank account can be quickly emptied during fraud. They also suggest not checking the option to have retail websites save your credit or debit card information for future purchases.
The Identity Theft Resource Center suggests keeping a separate, low-limit credit card for online purchases. If your payment information is compromised in a breach, you can contest the charges and easily close the account without affecting any automatic payments linked to your credit card.
4.Unfamiliar ATMs. Today’s thieves are going beyond attaching skimming devices to ATMs to capture your card information—they’re now using something called “wiretapping” that’s virtually impossible for consumers to detect, according to Consumerist (a subsidiary of Consumer Reports). A criminal intercepts your card data by inserting a device through a small hole in the ATM, which is then covered by a fake decal.
Because fraudsters are getting savvier, you need to be smarter. Don’t use unfamiliar ATMs if possible as it will be tougher for you to notice something new or unusual about the machine if you rarely use it. Instead, use an ATM you know well or one inside a bank or protected lobby. As for those mobile ATMs at local fairs or pop-up events: skip them. Instead, plan ahead and withdraw some cash at your bank or use your credit card instead.
We may get some relief from the risk of fraud as financial institutions move to chip-enabled debit and credit cards that are harder for thieves to duplicate. But no matter what, always monitor your bank statements, credit card statements, and credit report regularly so you can quickly catch—and squelch—card fraud.
Teri Cettina is a personal finance and parenting writer/blogger. Prior to becoming a freelancer, she was an employee communications writer & editor for a large regional bank. Follow her on Twitter: @TeriCettina.
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