The proliferation of technology over the past 10 to 15 years has expanded credit and debit card processing to nearly every aspect of our commercial lives. Previously reserved for large-ticket items or transactions requiring deposits, electronic payments are now regularly accepted by nearly all merchants; from the checkout line at the corner store to the smartphone of a 9-year old lemonade vendor, paying with plastic has become the new standard.
While the unarguably effortless convenience of electronic payments makes them extremely popular with consumers, we are not the only ones celebrating their recent surge. An ever-expanding underground network of data thieves is also singing the praises of our pay-by-plastic culture. The recent high profile data security breaches at Target and Neiman Marcus prove that no one is truly immune to these criminals’ cunning and calculated attacks. Even though the US is scheduled to convert its current magnetic strip system to the more secure chip-and-pin system by 2015 protecting yourself in the meantime remains critical.
Although the only 100% failsafe against theft of your credit and debit card information remains not having a card at all, utilizing the following tips can greatly reduce your risk:
Pay with Cash Whenever Possible
It is a simple matter of volume. The less you use your credit or debit card, the less your information is available for possible theft. Even though carrying cash will increase the physical size of your wallet, paying with it whenever possible will decrease the risk of someone stealing your card info. So think twice before you swipe your card to purchase a pack of gum and a soft drink at the neighborhood bodega.
Protect Your Physical Card Information
While a large portion of payment information theft occurs in the digital world, many crooks still mine a wealth of useable info from the physical source:
Shredding your financial information (preferably with a crosscut shredder) can prevent you from becoming an easy target for someone sifting through your trash.
Store sensitive information discreetly and securely inside your own home. This is especially important if you have a roommate, service workers in your home or other sources of traffic coming in and out of the home.
If you are away from your home for an extended period of time, remember to have a trusted party collect your mail or even better, request a vacation hold through the US Post Office.
Ensure that the billing addresses and contact information for ALL of your accounts are current and correct.
Pay Attention to Your Account Activity
This one sounds straightforward enough but the effortless nature of electronic payment makes it very easy to just swipe and forget. However, early fraud detection can mean the difference between a quick card reissue and a long and often-arduous paperwork process to restore your credit.
Check your card activity regularly either online or on your monthly statement. If you use an online interface, only access your account from a secure and familiar network.
Remember to change your online account passwords regularly (every 30-180 days) and use a unique combination of uppercase, lowercase, numerals and symbols.
If you receive paper billing statements, open them immediately and examine them to confirm that every transaction is legitimate and lists the correct amount.