With the recently reported data breaches of fast-food giant Chipotle Mexican Grill and retailer Kmart, it seems like we are risking our debit and credit card information to hackers and identity thieves each time we use them. In fact, security researchers think that nearly half of the credit cards in the U.S. are at risk.
It makes us wonder if it's time to stop using debit and credit cards altogether and switch back to cash.
While we don't think you should abandon plastic entirely, there are some places where using cash is better for security. And it shouldn't be much less convenient than using a card.
Before we talk about that, however, we do have a bit of security advice that might strike you as ironic. The place you go to get cash could be stealing your information. We are talking about your ATM.
Criminals have perfected disguising and installing what are called "skimmers." These fit over the card reader on an ATM and snag your account data when you swipe your card. Then, a small camera over the ATM keypad records your PIN when you punch it in.
Spotting a skimmer is hard. Your best defense is to get your cash from a teller. If the bank isn't open, only use an ATM that's in a restricted-access foyer.
You should also hold your hand over the keypad when you enter your PIN. This blocks any camera from seeing what you're doing. Click here to see how effective this simple trick is.
Now that you know how to safely get cash, here's where you might want to use it. These are three of the most common places where your credit card information can get stolen.
1. Gas stations
ATMs aren't the only places criminals can install card skimmers. In fact, gas stations are a favorite target for thieves.
The tiny, almost invisible skimming devices are installed inside or on a gas pump's debit or credit card slot. When a customer swipes a card, the skimmer reads the account information from the magnetic strip.
The criminal then retrieves the information every few days by driving by the compromised gas stations and remotely grabbing the card data wirelessly via Bluetooth. Since you still have your card with you, you won't even know that your information was stolen until unauthorized charges start appearing. Alarming stuff indeed.
Security experts recommend never putting in a debit card PIN at a gas pump. Use a credit card instead if you must since credit card transactions are easier to reverse, and you're only liable for up to $50 of fraudulent purchases.
You can also pay inside the gas station with a card, which is much less risky. For the ultimate safety though, pay in cash.
The vast majority of waiters and waitresses are trustworthy, hard-working people, so be nice to them and tip well for their good service. But today I'm talking about the few servers who aren't so trustworthy.
Over the past few years, there have been a number of stories about unscrupulous servers bringing handheld card skimmers to work. They swipe customer card information and use it to make fraudulent purchases later.
Low-tech thieves just write down the card number or take the card outright, which usually doesn't end well for them.
From local hole-in-the-wall diners to high-end New York eateries, no place seems to be safe. I know a few people who had their card information stolen at a range of pizza shops.
Even if the employees are trustworthy, many restaurants use older point-of-sale systems. These are easy for hackers to install card-swipe software on, like in the Target hack.
Restaurants and gas stations make juicy targets: a steady stream of customers, some not from the area. The same goes for stores. In fact, credit card skimmers are constantly being found even at retail stores.
For small purchases, cash is the way to go. Use cash at the grocery store or while buying clothes. For larger purchases, use a credit card instead of a debit card. Again, you have less liability with a credit card.
We've already stated that it has better fraud protection systems in place. Plus, a hacker can't overdraft your bank account with a credit card. You don't need to be fighting overdraft fees on top of everything else.
Also, to protect yourself from in-store card skimmers, newer point-of-sale technology is rolling out to retail stores. If possible, use the method of paying with your card's EMV microchip instead of swiping. This is safer since each EMV transaction issues a unique code and it changes every time, unlike the permanent information on a magnetic strip.
Another way to prevent store skimmers is to use contactless payment methods like Apple Pay or Android Pay. With this method, you don't even have to take your card out of your wallet, all you need is your phone or your watch. Like EMV, contactless methods like these issue a unique code for each transaction and is definitely safer than card swiping.