With this year’s rise in cyber attacks, more Americans than ever are vulnerable to payment data theft, and experts say more retail industry data breaches are certain to come. While using a credit or debit card requires ceding personal information to banks and retailers, shoppers can take a few measures to reduce the risk of falling prey to the most basic kinds of fraud.
Unfortunately, none of these measures is enough to protect consumers from sophisticated cyber attacks like those that hit retailers Target and Home Depot, which exposed millions of customers’ credit and debit card information. Those attacks go beyond spam emails and password theft and involve viewing and copying entire streams of data from Web traffic transferred by banks and retailers. The only complete protection against that theft? Use cash.
But the following steps can reduce risk, according to Richard Avery, president of Securitas Security Services, and Robert Twitchell, cyber warfare consultant to the Department of Defense and CEO and president of cyber security company Dispersive Technologies:
Consider using single-use credit cards for online shopping. Most banks offer so-called disposable or single-use credit cards that can be used for online shopping. The virtual credit card number usually has a customizable time frame and dollar limit, which protects your real credit card number from thieves.
Use a credit card over a debit card, wire or bank transfer. Credit cards have more built-in safeguards to protect you against identity theft and give you a better chance of immediate refund in case of fraud or if you buy a defective product.
Install anti-virus software and a firewall. Make sure you regularly update your security software and never open suspicious emails. Security apps and browser extensions can add protection by blocking pop-ups and detecting malware.
Enable a lock screen or timeout on your smartphone. If you ever shop online through your phone, enable timeouts or a lock screen on it. They automatically require a password after a brief duration of time when the device is on but not in use, in case it is stolen or lost.
Be careful which websites you visit. Check the privacy policies of websites and avoid those that share information like email addresses with other companies. Shop at brands and stores you are familiar with and trust. Warranties are best to protect against defective products. And when shopping online, always make sure there is an “s” after the “http” in the address bar of your Web browser, which designates a secure site.
Only shop online with a secure Internet connection. That means don’t use public Wi-Fi, like at a Starbucks or airport, to cross presents off your holiday gift list. Instead, shop online with your home Internet connection.
Limit your banking and online purchases to as few machines as possible. The more computers, tablets and mobile devices you use with your credit card information, the more you’re at risk for fraud.