Shopaholics, beware! Shopping is fun, but if your ID is stolen, you can end up buying more than you bargained for. Retail stores are prime locations for identity thieves looking to steal personal information contained on your credit cards. And the card never even needs to leave your hand! In May 2016, thieves installed skimmers—devices placed over credit card readers to steal information—on self-swipe credit card readers at Walmart stores in Virginia and Kentucky. After the theft was discovered, security videos revealed footage of a man popping a skimmer onto a card reader in a couple of seconds while a partner held up merchandise to hide what he was doing. For their few seconds of work, the thieves made off with up to $20,000 from 38 victims.
A skimmer reads the card number, PIN number, and other information off the magnetic strip on a card and sends it to the thief via Bluetooth or stores it until the thief can retrieve it. The criminal makes a new card with the same digital information on its magnetic strip, then typically buys merchandise with that card and fences the ill-gotten goods. (Or, if it’s a debit card, empties the victim’s bank account.) The Better Business Bureau warns that an increasing number of retail businesses are being infested with skimmers. ATM machines and gas stations have been targeted for years, but now grocery stores, convenience stores, and big box stores are also being targeted with skimmers.
To protect yourself, you need to be as careful about paying as you are about choosing the products you buy. First, check before you swipe. (Here’s an article with a side-by-side comparison of a normal card reader and one with a skimmer.) If the credit card reader looks odd in any way, try to wiggle it. If it moves, check with store security before swiping your card. Second, pay with a credit card or cash, not a debit card. If your credit card number is stolen, you can dispute the charges. If thieves drain your bank account, you’re in for a more difficult time recovering your money. Better yet, if you have a choice, use one of the new chip credit cards in a chip reader. Those are more secure and harder for thieves to counterfeit. Third, consider mobile payment. Apple Pay and Android Pay transmit a special code to retailers, making the transaction more secure, and with Apple Pay, you can also set it to require fingerprint recognition by your phone.
These few simple steps will help you fund your shopping spree, and not some crook’s. You know you’re a smart shopper. Now you can be a smart payer, too.