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Dan McLamb, UNC-Chapel Hill ITSIn a guest post for National Cyber Security Awareness Month, Dan McLamb, IT Security Specialist at Information Technology Services, discusses ways to reduce your risk when using debit and credit cards.

The following guidance is intended for general security awareness, and should not be taken as a guide for the storage, processing or transmission of University-owned cardholder data.

In the past few years, popular, well-known retail merchants have made big headlines for their credit card breaches. Target, Staples, Home Depot, Noodles and Company, Eddie Bauer and Wendy’s are just some of the few of the high-profile breaches that have made news.

In all likelihood, you — or someone you know — have had your credit card number compromised. While there is not much you can do to address the threats faced by these retailers’ environments, you can take steps to reduce the risk to your personal financial data.

  Use your credit card, not your ATM card. The major card brands limit liability in the event your credit card is compromised and used to make fraudulent purchases. Your bank may even contact you when it notices unusual activity on your credit card. In some cases, the bank may proactively disable the card to prevent what appears to be additional fraudulent charges. While this can be inconvenient, the direct financial hit is usually minimal.

However, if your ATM card is compromised and used to make fraudulent purchases or cash withdrawals — even with good liability protection – the money in your checking account may be unavailable until the matter is resolved. This significantly affects your financial well-being.

Cover the keypad hand. When you use your debit card, or any card with a PIN, cover the hand entering the PIN with your other hand. ATM thieves will often use a combination of a skimmer and a video camera to steal both your ATM card’s magnetic stripe (it gets “skimmed”) and your PIN (the camera will point to the keypad to record your fingers entering your PIN). Armed with both pieces of information, a thief can then create a clone of your ATM card, then withdraw funds using the PIN captured on the camera. A simple way to thwart the recording of your PIN is to simply cover your keypad hand with your freehand. This also discourages onlookers who may have ulterior motives.

Pay attention. Before you use your debit or credit card, look for anything unusual or suspicious. Is there anything odd about the card reader? Does it look like it normally looks? Is there any sign of tampering? If the device has an illuminated keypad, are the lights working? Any small detail that is off may be a sign of a compromised system. If you notice anything suspicious, bring it to the retailer’s attention or simply walk away. Do not use a system you do not trust.

Reconcile. Save receipts in case questions arise about charges to your card. Reconcile at least monthly to identify fraudulent charges. Better yet, take advantage of online banking to reconcile weekly or even daily. The sooner you catch a fraudulent charge, the better. Can you receive a text message every time your card is used?

Make a copy. Make a copy of the front and back of your credit cards. Store those copies in a secured location, such as a home safe or safety deposit box. If your wallet or purse is ever stolen, you will have a copy of your cards, which usually includes details on what to do if your card is lost or stolen. If you can store them in a secure location, also make physical copies of important documents in your possession, such as driver’s license, Social Security card, etc.

Additional tips

  • Don’t give your credit card, credit card number or PIN to anyone you don’t know or trust.
  • Never, ever send your credit card number through email, text message or other insecure messaging technology.
  • Draw a line on any blank spaces on charge slips before signing.
  • Never sign a blank charge slip.
  • If possible, use a card that includes a photo ID.

The threat to your personal finances is real. By taking a few simple steps to secure this data, you put yourself in a much better position to avoid the headache associated with a compromised account.

Remember, thieves are lazy. They look for — and take advantage of — low-hanging fruit. Don’t let your personal finances be low-hanging fruit.

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