How to Protect Yourself From Credit Card Theft

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Last fall, I received an email that appeared to be from my web host. The email claimed that there was a problem with my payment information and asked me to update it. I clicked on the link in the email and entered my credit card number, thinking that a recent change I’d made to my site must have caused a problem.

The next morning, I logged onto my credit card account to find two large unauthorized purchases. A scammer had successfully phished my payment information from me.

This failure of security is pretty embarrassing for a personal finance writer. I know better than to click through an email link claiming to be from my bank, credit card lender, or other financial institution. But because the email came from a source that wasn’t specifically financial (and because I was thinking about the changes I had made to my website just the day before), I let myself get played.

Thankfully, because I check my credit card balance daily, the scammers didn’t get away with it. However, it’s better to be proactive about avoiding credit card theft so you’re not stuck with the cleanup, which took me several months to complete.

Here’s how you can protect yourself from credit card theft. 

Protecting your physical credit card

Stealing your physical credit or debit card is in some respects the easiest way for a scammer to get their hands on your sweet, sweet money. With the actual card in hand, a scammer has all the information they need to make fraudulent purchases: the credit card number, expiration date, and the security code on the back.

That means keeping your physical cards safe is one of the best ways to protect yourself from credit card theft. Don’t carry more cards than you intend to use. Having every card you own in a bulging wallet makes it more likely someone could steal one when you’re not paying attention and you may not realize it’s gone if you have multiple cards.

Another common place where you might be separated from your card is at a restaurant. After you’ve paid your bill, it can be easy to forget if you’ve put away your card (especially if you’ve been enjoying adult beverages). So make it a habit to confirm that you have your card before you leave a restaurant.

If you do find yourself missing a credit or debit card, make sure you call your bank immediately to report it lost or stolen. The faster you move to lock down the card, the less likely the scammers will be able to make fraudulent charges. Make sure you have your bank’s phone number written down somewhere so you’re able to contact them quickly if your card is stolen or lost. (See also: Don’t Panic: Do This If Your Identity Gets Stolen)

Recognizing card skimmers

Credit card thieves also go high-tech to get your information. Credit card skimmers are small devices placed on a legitimate spot for a card scanner, such as on a gas pump or ATM. 

When you scan your card to pay, the skimmer device captures all the information stored in your card’s magnetic stripe. In some cases, when there’s a skimmer placed on an ATM, there’s also a tiny camera set up to record you entering your PIN so the fraudster has all the info they need to access your account.

The good news is that it’s possible to detect a card skimmer in the wild. Gas stations and ATMs are the most common places where you’ll see skimmer devices. Generally, these devices will often stick out past the panel rather than sit flush with it, as the legitimate credit card scanner is supposed to. Other red flags to look for are scanners that seem to jiggle or move slightly instead of being firmly affixed, or a pin pad that appears thicker than normal. All of these can potentially indicate a skimmer is in place. 

If you find something that looks hinky, go to a different gas station or ATM. Better safe than sorry. (See also: 18 Surprising Ways Your Identity Can Be Stolen)

Protecting your credit card numbers at home

Your home is another place thieves will go searching for your sensitive information. To start, you likely receive credit card offers, the cards themselves, and your statements in the mail. While mail theft is relatively rare (it’s a federal crime, after all), it’s still a good idea to make sure you collect your mail daily and put a hold on it when you go out of town.

Once you get your card-related paperwork in the house, however, you still may be vulnerable. Because credit card scammers are not above a little dumpster diving to get their hands on your credit card number. This is why it’s a good idea to shred any paperwork with your credit card number and other identifying information on it before you throw it away.

Finally, protecting your credit cards at home also means being wary about whom you share information with over the phone. Unless you’ve initiated a phone call of your own volition — not because you’re calling someone who left a voicemail — you should never share your credit card numbers over the phone. Scammers will pose as customer service agents from your financial institution or a merchant you frequent to get your payment information. To be sure, you can hang up and call the institution yourself using the main phone number.

Keeping your cards safe online

You should never provide your credit card information via a link in an email purporting to be from your financial institution or a merchant. Scammers are able to make their fake emails and websites look legitimate, which was exactly the reason I fell victim to this fraud.

But even with my momentary lapse in judgment about being asked for my payment information from my “web host,” there were other warning signs that I could’ve heeded if I had been paying attention. 

The first is the actual email address. These fake emails will often have a legitimate looking display name, which is the only thing you might see in your email. However, if you hover over or click on the display name, you can see the actual email address that sent you the message. Illegitimate addresses do not follow the same email address format you’ll see from the legitimate company.

In addition to that, looking at the URL that showed up when I clicked the link could’ve told me something weird was going on. Any legitimate site that needs your financial information will have a secure URL to accept your payment. Secure URLs start with https:// (rather than http://) and feature a lock icon in the browser bar. If these elements are missing, then you should not enter your credit card information. (See also: 3 Ways Millennials Can Avoid Financial Fraud)

Daily practices that keep you safe

In addition to these precautions, you can also protect your credit cards with the everyday choices you make. For instance, using strong, unique passwords for all of your online financial services, from shopping to banking, can help you prevent theft. Keeping those strong passwords safe — that is, not written down on a post-it note on your laptop — will also help protect your financial information.

Regularly going over your credit card and banking statements can also help ensure that you’re the only one making purchases with your credit cards. It was this daily habit of mine that made sure my scammers didn’t actually receive the computer they tried to purchase with my credit card. The fact that I check my balance daily meant I was able to shut down the fraudulent sale before they received the goods, even though I fell down on the job of protecting my credit card information. 

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How to Contact a Real Person at a Credit Bureau

Contact a Credit Bureau and Talk to a Real Person – SmartAsset

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The information that credit bureaus collect affects just about every aspect of your life. Whether you’re approved for a credit card, get a good mortgage rate, can rent an apartment or even get a job – they all can hinge to varying degrees on your credit score. So when a credit bureau has something wrong, it’s imperative that you tell them. The three major bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – offer online services and prefer that you use their online forms instead of calling. But sometimes you need to talk to a live person. Here’s how to make contact.

Why Would I Need to Contact a Credit Bureau?

The three big credit bureaus or credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – create credit reports that reflect consumers’ creditworthiness. The reporting agencies are for-profit businesses and sell their reports to other businesses, such as insurers, credit card companies, banks and employers.

These businesses in turn factor in these credit reports when making decisions such as whether to offer you a credit card and at what interest rate. So it’s  important to monitor your credit reports and make sure the information on them is correct. If you ever find a mistake, you should contact the credit bureau to correct the information. You may also need to contact to a credit bureau if you think that you’re a victim of credit fraud. That could mean placing a fraud alert on your account or freezing your credit so that no one can open a new line of credit in your name.

Talk to a Real Person at Equifax

Equifax has multiple phone numbers that you can use to speak with a real person. The number that you use will depend on what you need help with. We recommend trying to contact the correct number. If you call the wrong number, they will simply say they cannot help you and then direct you to call another number. You can find all of Equifax’s contact information on its website, Equifax.com.

If you want to contact Equifax with a general inquiry, you can reach the company via phone at the number 800-525-6285. Just make sure to call between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday.

Equifax has also been in the news recently because it suffered a large data breach in 2017. If you have questions about whether your information was compromised in the breach, Equifax has a dedicated phone line at 888-548-7878. Again, be sure to call between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday.

The table below has some common reasons why you might want to call Equifax and the number that you should call in order to speak with a representative.

How to Speak With a Real Person at Equifax
General inquiries 800-525-6285
Canceling a product or service (Equifax customers) 866-640-2273
Request a copy of your credit report* 866-349-5191
Place a fraud alert on your credit card 800-525-6285
Dispute information in your credit report 866-349-5191
Place, lift or remove a freeze on your credit 888-298-0045
Dedicated phone line for information on the 2017 data breach 888-548-7878

*Don’t forget: You can get a free copy of your credit report three times per year.

Talk to a Real Person at Experian

Experian makes it relatively hard to talk to a real person on the phone. The company encourages people to use its website for most things. However, there are three main phone numbers that you should know if you want to talk to someone at Experian.

Call 888-397-3742 if you want to order a credit report or if you have any questions related to fraud and identity theft. The number 888-397-3742-6 (1-888-EXPERIAN) will also work. You can place an immediate fraud/security alert on your credit with this number.

If you have a question about something on a recent credit report (such as incorrect information), you will need to have a copy of the credit report. On the report you will find a 10-digit number. This number is different for each credit report and you will need it for the representative to help with any issues related to your specific report. Once you have that number ready, you can call 714-830-7000 with questions about your report.

If you need help with anything related to your membership account with Experian, you should call the company’s customer service at 479-343-6239. You will need to call while the Experian office is open in order to speak with someone. The hours are 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET, Monday to Friday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET, Saturday and Sunday.

How to Speak With a Real Person at Experian
Buying a credit report,
Placing a fraud alert on your credit file
888-397-3742 or
888-397-37426 (888-EXPERIAN)
Question about a recent credit report 714-830-7000
Question about Experian membership account 479-343-6239

Talk to a Real Person at TransUnion

TransUnion has one general support number that you can use to talk to a human for help with your credit report (such as to dispute information, freeze your account, or report fraud), your credit score or any general questions. That number is 833-395-693800.

Note that a human representative is only available Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET,  Monday through Friday.

You will hear an automated service when you first call this number. Press 4 in order to speak with a representative. Then you will need to press 1 if you have a TransUnion File Number or 2 if you do not have a number.

A TransUnion File Number is a unique identification number that you can find in the top right of your TransUnion credit report. You do not need a number to speak with a representative, but you will need it to do anything related specifically to your credit report. For example, the file number is necessary for disputing incorrect information.

The Takeaway

If you ever need to buy a credit report or address an issue on your report, you will need to contact a credit bureau. Each of the three national credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, has a website where you can do most things you may need to do. In fact, they prefer that you use online forms instead of calling. But sometimes it’s comforting to speak with a real person who can answer your specific questions.

The first step is figure out what phone number you need. The credit bureaus all have multiple numbers. Not all of the numbers will allow you to solve your specific issue. Of course once you have the right number, you will also need some patience. Hold times can be long, particularly during the coronavirus slow-down. The credit bureaus have also experienced higher phone traffic since the Equifax breach in 2017.

Tips for Using a Credit Card Responsibly

  • Correcting inaccuracies on your credit report by contacting a credit bureau can help to improve your credit score. Another potential way to improve your score is to get another credit card. It will increase your available credit and improve your credit utilization ratio. You can find the best card for you with our credit card tool. Of course, you should only get another card if you can responsibly handle the credit you already have.
  • One good piece of credit card advice is always to avoid as many fees as possible. Fees can make it harder for you to keep your spending down. Higher bills, in turn, could be harder for you to pay back in full. Here are 15 credit card fees that you should avoid.
  • It can be tempting to keep swiping your credit card, but make a budget and stick to it. A financial advisor can help you create a road map to make sure you’re hitting your goals and not getting into debt. SmartAsset’s free matching tool can help you find a person to work with. It will connect you with up to three advisors in your area.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Milkos, ©iStock.com/sturti, ©iStock.com/fstop123

Lucy Lazarony Lucy Lazarony has been writing about personal finance for more than a decade. Lucy’s a credit card expert. She is a freelance writer and award-winning journalist living in South Florida. Lucy earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. Her work is featured on Credit.com, CardRatings.com, MoneyRates.com and Art Hive Magazine.
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