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Protecting Your Plastic from High-Tech Criminals

How to help keep your credit and debit cards safe

While many consumers still like to use paper money and coins, more people are pulling out credit or debit cards to make purchases. But as the popularity of payment cards grows, so does the number of criminals trying to steal valuable details, including the cardholder’s name, account number, and expiration date, which are printed on the card as well as encoded (for machine readability) in the magnetic stripe or a computer chip.

If you’re ever the victim or target of credit or debit card theft or fraud, catching it fast and reporting it to your card issuer is key to resolving the situation. And while federal laws and industry practices protect consumers in these situations, important differences depend on the card type. Here are some ways to keep your card information and money safe.

Never give out your payment card numbers in response to an unsolicited e-mail, text message, or phone call, no matter who the source supposedly is. An “urgent” e-mail or phone call appearing to be from a well-known organization is likely a scam attempting to trick you into divulging your card information. It’s called “phishing,” a high-tech variation of the concept of “fishing” for account information. If they get confidential details, the criminals can use the information to make counterfeit cards and run up charges on your accounts.

Take precautions at the checkout counter, ATM, and gas pump. Be on the lookout for credit and debit card reading devices that look suspicious, such as a plastic sleeve inside a card slot. Crooks are getting very good at attaching their own devices over legitimate card readers and gathering account information from the cards that consumers swipe through those readers. Report all situations to your card issuer.

Closely monitor your bank statements and credit card bills. Look at your account statements as soon as they arrive in your mailbox or electronic inbox, and report discrepancies or anything suspicious, such as unauthorized withdrawal. While federal and state laws limit your losses if you’re a victim of fraud or theft, your protections may be stronger the quicker you report the problem. It’s also easy to monitor your accounts using online banking or even your mobile phone. Don’t assume that a small unauthorized transaction isn’t worth reporting to your bank. Also, contact your institution if your bank statement or credit card bill doesn’t arrive when you normally expect it. That could be a sign that an identity thief has stolen your mail or account information to commit fraud in your name.

Periodically review your credit reports for warning signs of fraudulent activity. Credit reports, prepared by credit bureaus (or consumer reporting agencies), summarize a consumer’s history of paying debts and other bills. But if a credit report shows a credit card, loan, or lease you never signed up for, this could indicate you are a victim of ID theft.