With the recent outbreak of data breaches at retail locations and restaurants, it doesn't feel safe to swipe your credit/debit card anywhere. It seems like we are risking our banking information to hackers and identity thieves each time we use them.
This raises the question, is it time to stop using cards altogether and go back to cash? While we don't think you should abandon plastic entirely, there are some places where using cash is better for security.
That's why you need to know these seven risky places to swipe your debit card.
1. Skimming ATMs
Let's begin by discussing a bit of security advice that you might find ironic. The place that 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.
2. 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/credit card slot. When a customer swipes their 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.
Using a debit card PIN at a gas pump is dangerous. Use a credit card instead 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 joints.
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.
4. Hotels and holds
Hotels have security issues similar to what we just discussed with restaurants. If there is a shady hotel clerk, they could use a skimmer while swiping your card or write down the card number and use it later.
I have a friend who actually had this experience. He stayed at a nice beach-front hotel in San Diego a couple years ago and about a month after the trip he started noticing odd charges on his credit card statement.
The credit card company found out after an investigation that the hotel clerk who checked him in stole his information. The thief wasn't very smart about it either, he used my friend's credit card to pay his electric bill which made it super easy to track down the crook.
This is a great reminder to always keep a close eye on your bank statements for suspicious charges. If you see any unfamiliar activity, report it immediately.
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.
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.
With so many horror stories of data breaches and hackers dominating the headlines, this one might seem obvious. We're talking about online shopping.
Technically you don't swipe your debit card when you make purchases online, but you are still entering all of your critical card information. That's all a potential cybercriminal needs to rip you off. It's a good idea to use credit cards instead of debit cards while shopping online for the reasons we stated earlier.
Before completing an online purchase you should also make sure the site is encrypted so your information can be kept private and protected. Sites that are encrypted will have https in the address bar instead of http.
7. Mobile vendors
Here is another place people use debit cards that isn't so secure. Mobile vendors.
Have you ever been to a farmers market or street fair where vendors are selling food or crafts? Many times these vendors will have a plastic dongle connected to their smartphone that allows them to accept credit/debit card payments.
This basically comes down to a trust issue. Do you trust every vendor that you've seen at a street fair? I don't know about you, but my answer is no.
If you're purchasing anything from a vendor, I suggest using Android or Apple Pay. The newer Square Pay boxes allow those types of payments. If not, use a credit card instead of your debit card.
Banks are trying to make debit/credit cards more secure, here's how chips can help
Over the last couple of years, you have most likely seen this major addition to your credit cards and debit cards. You might have suddenly had your bank re-issue every single one, and the new ones have a shiny little square. Those little shiny squares are called EMV chips. But what are they really for? And can they really protect you from some of the worst credit card crimes?