Recently, I bought a jacket at Ralph Lauren in New York City (an admittedly extravagant gift to myself for finally finishing my first book). At checkout, the clerk asked me to fill out a contact form. “No thanks,” I said. “I don’t like to give out my email address.”
“We won’t spam you,” he said. “It’s just to notify you when new items become available.”
After I briefly explained how spam works, and that notifying me of the availability of new items not only constitutes spam, but pretty much defines it, the clerk smiled politely and said “no problem.” As he went into the back to run my card, I noticed a second clerk standing nearby. He’d overheard our little back-and-forth and was smiling wryly to himself. Finally, he couldn’t hold it anymore. “You know they can get to you through your credit card anyway, right?”
This gave me pause. I did know that, didn’t I? I mean, if a business wants to spam me, they can easily figure out my contact info from a purchase I’ve made. And that’s when a second, more insidious thought struck: If it’s that easy to spam someone after they use their credit card, how easy would it be to steal their identity?
When it comes to credit cards, there’s a whole universe of information out there, and much of it consists of black holes. That is to say, most of us simply don’t know what we realistically should or should not be concerned about. Sure, none of us want our identities stolen, our accounts hacked, our emails spammed—but what exactly are the risks and what can we do to mitigate them?
Following are 8 essential security measures we should all be taking with respect to credit cards. These tips will help us avoid spammers and identity thieves alike.
1. Treat your cards like cash.
Would you hand a bartender a pile of cash and say “I’d like to open a tab?” So why do that with a credit card? We tend to treat cards differently than cash because they’re plastic. And hey, if someone snags your card, what’s the worst that could happen? Well, it’s called identity theft, and it ain’t a walk in the park. To avoid this, start thinking of and treating your credit cards like cash. Don’t leave them lying around or in the hands of strangers. Yes, this makes life slightly more annoying, but just think of how annoying it would be if someone snatched your card and copied or cloned it. Remember, a credit card is like a pile of cash. Treat it as such.
2. Only buy from trusted websites.
Online shopping is all the rave these days, and often times we enter our credit card information without giving it a second thought. That’s basically an identity thief’s wet dream. To keep the wolves at bay, make sure you check for security signs from whatever site you’re shopping from. These include a URL that begins with ‘https’ instead of the standard ‘http.’ That ‘s’ stands for ‘secure,’ which means the site uses encryption code when transmitting data online. Also check the page for a lock symbol or security firm icon from a trusted firm like Verisign or McAfee. Those symbols indicate a secure site.
3. Be careful when you travel.
The universal language isn’t English anymore—it’s code. That means that a hacker can snag your personal information from anywhere in the world. So be sure to be extra cautious when you travel. Only use your card at bank ATMs and trusted retailers. Let your bank know where you’re traveling and what the dates are so they can notify you if there are any suspicious purchases. And always update your antivirus protection if you’re bringing a laptop with you.
4. Avoid public computers and WiFi.
People love to go online shopping whenever the mood strikes. Sometimes this means shopping on a public computer or open WiFi network. This is extremely dangerous as these platforms are especially vulnerable. So here’s a neat little trick for you: Feel free to browse and comparison shop online when you’re on an open WiFi network, but don’t purchase anything. Wait until you’re on a secure server (your home computer) before making a purchase. This has the doubly-positive effect of helping to curb your impulse-buying habits! As for public computers, never enter credit card information on them. Hackers often install malware onto public computers specifically targeting online shoppers. Plus the computer’s cache can store your personal information, making it easier for someone to steal it.
5. Never save your credit card number.
I know, I know, that whole ‘1-click’ thing makes life super easy. But just think of how easy you’re making the life of a hacker or spam-artist by storing your credit card info on a retailer’s server. Remember that massive customer breach of Target not long ago? Sure, identity thieves can strike anywhere. But storing your information with a retailer is like standing in the middle of a war zone with a giant bullseye painted on your back. Better to take the time to input your card info for each and every purchase (this also helps curb impulse-buying, by the way).
6. Keep your PIN number safe.
This one is obvious, but bears repeating anyway. You should never ever EVER give out your PIN to anyone, ever. Not your parents, not your friends, not your priest or rabbi. Not even if God herself came down from heaven and demanded you hand it over. Sorry God, no exceptions here. The ‘P’ in PIN stands for personal. Make sure to keep it that way.
7. Be wary at the ATM.
Thieves love to hang out at ATM terminals with devices that can snatch your card info – sometimes electronically. They use counterfeit cards with magnetic strips to clone your information and make fraudulent purchases. So be wary whenever you use ATMs. Always shield your PIN number from view, never accept help from anyone, and if a sketchy dude or dudette is hanging around the ATM machine, it might be best to move on to the next one.
8. Watch out for phishing scams.
A phishing scam is any scam that lures a potential victim into giving away personal information which can then be used to steal their identity. A popular example is the follow-up email from a retailer you recently made a purchase with. If you receive an email claiming there was a problem with your order, and you need to resubmit your credit card info or input the last 4 digits of your Social Security number, a red flag should go up. Any legitimate retailer that needs additional information to complete your order will ask you to return to the site and submit information on an encrypted page (and this information will never be your Social Security number). When in doubt, call the customer service number to speak directly with a representative.
While the whole idea of identity theft may seem scary and invasive, the fact remains that we live in a brave new world when it comes to personal information. More and more of our information is being stored in more and more places around the world, which makes it that much easier for thieves and spammers to acquire it. But don’t be discouraged, and don’t throw in the towel. While you can never completely eliminate the possibility that your information will be stolen, you can reduce the likelihood of such an event occurring. All it takes is a little awareness and a willingness to take the necessary precautions.
Featured photo credit: _Dinkel_ via Flickr via flickr.com