The No. 1 rule for savvy credit card use: Always pay your bills on time. But smart credit card use also means protecting yourself from fraud, using rewards to your benefit and allowing your plastic to help build your credit score.
Here are 10 tips to help you accomplish all of these goals in 2017.
1. Have patience with the chip card rollout
There is good news on the horizon for anxious credit card shoppers: In 2017, you won’t have to ask as often, “Do I dip or do I swipe?”
Fewer than half of all retail merchants today are able to process chip-based credit and debit cards, as the rollout of chip-enabled payment terminals has been much slower than anticipated. That’s why you’re still using the magnetic stripe on the back of your card to pay at many retailers.
But global payments consulting firm The Strawhecker Group says you’ll be dipping at 62 percent of all retailers by March 2017; acceptance of EMV (or Europay, MasterCard and Visa) chip cards throughout the year will gradually climb to 90 percent.
This is all in the name of fraud protection. Chip-based credit cards make it much harder for the bad guys to use your credit card information for in-store fraud.
So have a little patience during this continued transition.
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2. Be wary at the gas pump
While in-store fraud should fall as a result of the EMV switch, that’s not the case at gas stations, which largely haven’t converted to chip-enabled terminals. Gas stations were supposed to make the switch in 2017, but in December, the major card processors pushed the deadline to 2020, citing the cost and complexity of the switchover for fuel merchants.
That means swiping at the pump will remain risky for some time, as gas stations throughout the country have been victimized by crooks who place difficult-to-detect skimmers on top of existing credit card readers to capture customers’ card information.
Here’s how to protect yourself:
- Use pumps that are closer to the gas station convenience store. Criminals tend to install skimmers on out-of-the-way pumps.
- Pay inside rather than at the pump.
- If you must use the card reader at the pump, use a credit card and not a debit card. If the credit card is skimmed, you’ll face no liability with the card company — and you won’t risk having money stolen from your bank account.
3. Check statements and your credit report
Even if you avoid risks — like swiping at the pump — you should remain vigilant against fraud. That means checking your monthly credit card statements and regularly looking at your credit reports.
Your statement will reveal signs of fraud, such as whether a criminal took your existing credit card number and used it to make illicit purchases. If you find an unusual charge, contact your credit card company immediately.
Your credit reports will reveal whether someone used your personal information to open new accounts in your name. If you find a credit card, mortgage or other account on your credit report that doesn’t belong to you, contact the creditor immediately.
You are entitled to a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus once a year. You can get the report at AnnualCreditReport.com. Stagger the requests so that you’re looking at a new credit report once every four months.
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4. Set up mobile alerts
If you’re not the type of person who is disciplined enough to regularly check your credit card account, you can automate the fraud detection process. Many large issuers now will let you set up mobile alerts that will alert you:
- When you’re approaching your credit limit.
- If the card company detects unusual activity, like spending that doesn’t fit your usual pattern, or transactions in unusual or unfamiliar locations.
- When your card has been used. You can set this for large purchases, all purchases or anything in between.
5. Freeze your credit
In other countries that have adopted EMV credit cards, in-store fraud lessened, but application fraud increased. Expect that in the U.S., too.
Thwarted from using stolen credit card numbers to commit crimes, thieves will turn to using personal information stolen in other breaches to open new credit accounts in your name.
You can catch this type of fraud by regularly checking your credit reports. But that will only identify fraud that has already occurred.
You can prevent new-account fraud by freezing your credit. When you order a credit or security freeze, you tell the major credit bureaus that you don’t want anyone looking at your credit file. Most reputable lenders won’t open an account without first pulling your credit, so this should prevent most application fraud.
It means the bad guys can’t open a credit card in your name. Of course, neither can you without a temporary or permanent thawing of your file.
6. Pay off high-interest debt
After you’ve thoroughly protected yourself from fraud, it’s time to start looking at how you actually use your credit cards.
Do you frequently carry a balance? Now’s the time to get that under control.
The Federal Reserve just raised interest rates for the second time since 2006. It has indicated it could raise short-term rates three more times in 2017.
That will impact what you’ll pay to finance credit card debt, as credit card companies are likely to raise rates in tandem with the Fed’s actions.
The credit bureau TransUnion recently calculated that after the Fed boosted rates by a quarter percentage point, 82 percent of consumers with a variable-rate credit account will see their monthly payments increase by less than $10. A much smaller percentage of consumers will see monthly payments increase by $50 or more.
Further rate hikes would increase monthly minimums, causing “payment shock” for some, according to TransUnion.
The lesson: Start paying down credit card debt now before a rate hike takes a bite.
7. Get a rewards card now
Credit card companies are engaging in a fierce battle for your loyalty, meaning it’s a good time to take advantage of sign-up bonuses.
In October, JPMorgan Chase reported a 35 percent increase in new credit card accounts for the quarter. No doubt, the popularity of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card helped drive that growth.
New cardholders can snag a 100,000-point bonus and generous travel rewards, including an annual $300 travel credit. The card comes with a hefty $450 annual fee, but that has done little to turn off consumers, who flocked to grab the card.
It’s unclear, though, how long this bonanza can last, as Chase reported the rewards payout cut profits by up to $300 million.
If you spot a deal that’s right for you, snag it now.
8. Use the right card
Rewards are only good if you use them. If you don’t travel much, the Sapphire Reserve card is probably not a good fit.
Consumers leave millions of rewards points and miles unused every year. A recent survey found that 58 percent of Americans say using a card to earn travel rewards is smart, but just 15 percent have ever paid for all or part of a trip using rewards points.
If this is you, consider a rewards credit card that pays you cash-back instead.
And if you carry a balance — as about half of Americans do at least occasionally — a rewards card may not be the right fit at all, since they tend to have higher interest rates.
In that case, you should seek a credit card with the lowest interest rate possible.
9. Mind your credit score
If you regularly carry a balance, that could have a negative impact on your credit score, even if you make on-time payments every month.
That’s because your credit utilization — how much credit you use versus how much total credit you have available — counts for about 30 percent of your FICO credit score.
The lower the utilization the better, but if you regularly carry a balance — especially one that puts you at or near your credit limit — that could damage your score.
10. Ask for a higher credit limit
If your credit score could use some help, here’s a simple way to boost it: Ask your credit card company to raise your credit limit.
A recent Bankrate survey found that 8 in 10 U.S. credit card holders who asked for a credit-limit increase were approved. But just 28 percent of cardholders had ever bothered to ask.
A higher limit could help your score because it would boost your available credit, lowering your utilization in the process.
But this only works if you don’t use that additional credit available to you.