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Living with credit, Protecting yourself

Confessions of a recovering careless cardholder

Julie Loffredi

I have a confession. I am a recovering careless cardholder.

That’s right. I’ve been sloppy in the past about safeguarding my information, and it has landed me in trouble. The result? My credit card numbers have been stolen multiple times.

Now, after several run-ins with fraudsters, I take extra precautions to better protect my information from hackers, scammers and thieves. While there is always a chance my account and other personal info will fall into the wrong hands, I try extra hard now to keep my cards safe when traveling. Here’s how:

Be on the lookout for skimmers
Skimmers are sneaky devices thieves use to scan credit or debit card data. Crooks affix a card reader to an ATM, gas pump, self-service checkout lane or anywhere else one dips or swipes a card. With a skimmer attached, when a customer inserts a card, fraudsters are able to record the data and use it.

It’s super difficult to spot a card skimmer. How tough? An FBI infographic says ATM skimmers “are usually undetectable.” One possible warning sign: When a card reader looks as if it has been tampered with, steer clear. Maybe the card slot is sticking out a bit or has some tape or glue stuck to it. According to the FBI, skimmers are more common at ATMs and gas pumps.

Now, I can’t prove my card info was snagged with a skimming device – but I did have a hunch something was fishy while using an ATM outside a bank in Miami. Three women were hovering over me as I used the ATM, and they were still lingering there when I passed by the ATM 30 minutes later. I thought that was strange, but I never mentioned it to the bank or the police.

Sure enough, mysterious charges appeared on my card a few days later.

Avoid public Wi-Fi
I learned the hard way about the hidden security dangers of using public Wi-Fi while staying in a hotel in Boston. After checking some emails, my computer stayed connected to the internet all night long. By morning, it appeared someone had accessed my credit card and personal information. A series of fraudulent charges appeared on my account hours later.

Especially when traveling, it’s hard to always avoid public Wi-Fi. Public Wi-Fi is convenient, and it saves users from additional data charges. The downside? An open Wi-Fi connection can let hackers and scammers easily grab your personal information.

If you must use public Wi-Fi for your laptop, smartphone or tablet when traveling – or even around your city, here are four things you can do to better protect yourself and minimize the risk of being hacked:

1. Turn off sharing.
2. Make sure your firewall is turned on.
3. When searching online, use only “https” sites (which are more secure).
4. Pass on logging into any network that doesn’t require a password.

Use tougher passwords
Lazy passwords, such as “12345” or “password,” increase your risk of fraud. Take a simple step to thwart hackers: Use a difficult password, and lock up your smartphone with a password.  Your best option? Come up with a complex password, such as “@#$4363^&++_fT.”

I made the mistake of using the same easy-peasy password for multiple accounts (bank, email, social media), and I got pretty freaked out when my email account was hacked a few years ago. The hacker could have easily unlocked my whole world.

Now, I make sure my passwords are hard as nails to figure out, and I create different passwords for every account. You might even want to use a password encryption service to add an extra layer of protection.

Sign up for all phone and email alerts
Yes, alerts from your bank or card company can be annoying – and sometimes generate false alarms – but they also can be a lifesaver.

Alerts from your card issuer can help you to spot a bogus charge early on, preventing fraudulent use of your card from getting out of hand. Another advantage? An alert from your bank can help keep your budget on track, and your card issuer’s alert can remind you when that next payment is due.

I started signing up for phone and email alerts after failing to catch a fraudulent charge until a few weeks after the damage was done. More banks offer text alerts, too.

5 more ways to be card smart
A few bonus card safety tips from the Federal Trade Commission:

  • Don’t give your account number over the phone unless you know the company is reputable.
  • Check your accounts regularly.
  • Check your receipt before signing. Draw a line through any blank spaces.
  • Notify your card company before traveling.
  • Carry only the card you plan on using.

Learn from my mistakes
Having been burned in the past by card fraud, I now take the few extra steps mentioned above to help keep my card information safe. You can, too.

Taking added precautions doesn’t mean I won’t ever be a fraud victim again, but by keeping my guard up, I feel a little safer when using my cards while traveling – and even at my neighborhood gas station or ATM.

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