Identity Theft by CafeCredit, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0, no changes.
Identity Theft by CafeCredit, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0, no changes.

Yesterday, in Part One: Preventing Identity Theft, we looked at various ways of keeping your identity safe. Today, we’ll examine some additional, free, methods of doing so as well as how to avoid credit card skimming.

How Do I Protect My Identity for Free?

There are various services you can pay for that will actively protect your identity and let you know if something goes amiss. Lifelock is an example of a company like this. And, while using a theft protection agency can give you peace of mind, there are multiple things you can do yourself, at no cost, to help protect your identity.

Never give your Social Security number or other information to strangers who call, text, or send e-mail messages to you. Phony “phishing” e-mails can look like they came from your bank or your credit card company. Also, don’t write your Social Security number on checks (except those you send to the IRS), non-credit applications, or other forms. Treat your SSN as a sacred, secret piece of information.

Never keep sensitive information in easy-to-access places. For example, never put your computer passwords in an unprotected file on your computer. Also, don’t write them down and put them in open places, such as on your computer monitor or under your keyboard.

When choosing passwords, don’t use simple passwords like “password” or your first or last name.

Keep financial account statements, medical records, and tax filings in a secure place at home, especially if you let workers or others inside. Shred documents when you no longer need them. Generally speaking, any sensitive records that you need to keep should be locked away.

Don’t post your birthday, mother’s maiden name, first pet’s name, or other personal information on websites like Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, or Twitter. They’re often used to verify your identity and could grant an identity thief electronic access to your accounts.

If your bank or credit card issuer offers free online or mobile alerts that will warn you of suspicious account activity as soon as it’s detected, sign up for them.

Finally, sign up for Credit Sesame’s credit monitoring service before you become a victim. Credit Sesame membership is 100% free, and no credit card is required to sign up. All Credit Sesame members get $50,000 in free identity theft insurance, and live support throughout the process of identity restoration.

Skimmer on (left) and off (right); images 2.1 Front Overview of Skimmer (left) and 1.2 ATM Card Reader Slot, courtesy Aaron Poffenberger; via Flickr, CC BY 2.0, joined two images into one.
Skimmer on (left) and off (right); images 2.1 Front Overview of Skimmer (left) and 1.2 ATM Card Reader Slot, courtesy Aaron Poffenberger; via Flickr, CC BY 2.0, joined two images into one.

How Do You Prevent Credit Card Skimming?

A credit card skimmer is a portable capture device attached in front of or on top of a legitimate scanner. The skimmer passively records the card data as you insert your credit card into the real scanner.

Credit card thieves will often temporarily affix the card skimmer device to gas pumps, ATMs, or other convenient self-service point-of-sale terminals. Criminals like gas pumps and ATMs because it is easy to retrieve their skimmers and these places generally receive a lot of traffic.

Inspect the card reader and the area near the PIN pad as many banks and merchants realize that skimming is on the rise and will often post a picture of what the real device is supposed to look like. Of course, a card skimmer could put a fake picture over the real picture so this isn’t a fail-safe way to spot a skimmer.

Most skimming devices are temporarily affixed to the gas pump or ATM so they can be easily retrieved once they’ve collected cardholder data. If you think the scanning device doesn’t look like it matches the machine’s color and style, it could be a skimmer.

Unless skimmers are running a large operation, they are probably only skimming one gas pump at a time. Take a quick look at the pump next to yours to see if the card reader and setup look different. Trust your gut – if you are in doubt, use a different gas pump or ATM in another location.

Try to avoid using your PIN at the gas pump. Choose the credit option that allows you to avoid entering your PIN. Even if there is not a card skimmer camera in sight, someone could be watching you enter your PIN and subsequently mug you and take your card to the nearest ATM to withdraw some cash.

How Do I Protect My Financial Accounts?

Keeping tabs on every aspect of your financial life is critical to protecting your accounts and everything in them. Banks and other financial institutions also make mistakes all the time! Whether it’s a glitch in the system or simple human error — it can cause you big financial trouble without you realizing it. So here are some ways to protect your money from system glitches and people both inside and outside the bank.

Check your accounts DAILY. It may seem kind of extreme, but it’s not — especially when it comes to fraud associated with a debit card and/or checking account. Monitoring your accounts daily will not only allow you to always have a good idea of what’s going on with your money, but it will also help you spot any potential fraudulent activity immediately.

Know your protections. Debit and credit cards come with very different protections under the law for you as a consumer.

Here’s what you should know:

If your credit card number is stolen, not the physical card, “you are not responsible for unauthorized charges under federal law,” according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. According to the CFPB, “if an unauthorized transaction appears on your statement (but your card or PIN has not been lost or stolen), under federal law you will not be liable for the debit if you report it within 60 days after your account statement is sent to you.” Failure to do so could mean you must pay the full amount of the unauthorized transactions.

If your actual card or PIN is stolen and you report the card as lost or stolen within two business days, you won’t be responsible for more than $50 of unauthorized transactions. Some issuers won’t even charge you the $50.

If someone uses your physical ATM or debit card without your permission (meaning it was stolen) and you report the fraudulent charges after two business days, but within sixty business days, you could lose as much as, but no more than, $500.

If someone uses your ATM or debit card without your permission and you don’t report it within 60 days after your statement is mailed to you, the potential damage is unlimited. You could lose all the money in that account, the unused portion of your maximum line of credit established for overdrafts, and even more.

Choose a financial institution with good customer service. Whether it’s a local bank, credit union, or multinational financial institution, find good customer service. The best places will always work with you to help get fraudulent charges or purchases off of your account.

Never share your banking information with anyone. Don’t share any of your sensitive information via text, email, phone, social media, or any other app. If you ever receive a request to share your information, do not respond or provide any piece of information about yourself.

Use strong passwords & two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication (sometimes called two-step authentication) requires you to take an extra step to authenticate who you are when you sign in or when you are doing a transaction.

Whatever the extra step is, opt in for it! It’s another layer of security for you and your money.

Don’t access your financial accounts from just anywhere. You should never log into your account — or any other account that contains your financial or card information — from an unsecured device or unprotected Wi-Fi network.

Come back tomorrow for Part Three: Actions Post-Identity Theft.

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