Person swiping a credit card
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Thieves need only a minute, sometimes just a second, to steal your credit card data.

“Back in the beginning, they got the imprint of credit cards from the carbon copies they dug out of the trash,” says William Noonan, a U.S. Secret Service special agent formerly in charge of the agency’s cyber operations branch. “Technology has changed things.”

Along with the massive data breach at Equifax in 2017, the more recent breach of Capital One in July of 2019 is an example of how criminals have hacked, phished and skimmed their way into data systems. From there, they have access to private records and can compromise the credit card information of millions of consumers.

But not all credit card schemes require the complexity of hacking and a huge privacy breach; many are simple and could be overlooked by anyone. To save yourself from potential credit card fraud, know the methods behind the robberies and how to protect yourself. We’ll go through the five most common ways thieves attempt to capture credit card data and what you can do to avoid becoming a victim.

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1. Skimming

Being one of the most common ways to snatch card data, you’ve likely heard of credit card skimming; and it comes in a few forms. “Skimmers” can be plastic devices that attach over the top of a credit card processor, most often found at ATMs and gas stations. While some of these contraptions will be clunky and obvious, the most dangerous overlays fit snugly onto the card reader and can be barely noticeable.

The goal of skimming is to capture your card’s data after you’ve swiped, which can then be sent via Bluetooth or when the thieves come back to the crime scene to retrieve the device. Avoiding the use of your credit card at gas pumps and ATMs in remote, low-traffic areas is a great way to not let this happen, but it isn’t foolproof.

Another known way of skimmers being used is when being waited on at a restaurant or bar. Since most dining payments are made out of sight, it’s easy for the staff to have a small skimmer of their own to commit the crime. The best way to prevent the negative impact of a behind the scenes swipe is to check your statements regularly for unknown charges.

2. Fraudulent phone calls

Every so often, you’ve likely answered the phone to hear some spiel from a company who wants to sell you something. Although you’ve never signed up to receive calls like this, they’ll tell you about some wonderful deal that they’re offering, often on financial products.

Unless it’s from a recognized source, your best bet is to hang up. Many of these counterfeit callers will make claims they can’t deliver on and will ask for payment up front. Overall, giving personal information on an unknown incoming call is a no-no.

3. Paying fees in advance

You may come across a lesser-known credit card company offering better rates and terms than your credit score allows with most cards. Often times, these companies will ask for an initial fee to create your account — only to be never heard from again. As soon as these phony organizations have your data, they can sell it off for widespread use or to make wrongful charges themselves.

Consumers looking for a top tier card are typically who’s sought out by these criminal companies. A great card is rightful to pursue, but not at the cost of falling victim to credit card fraud.

These scenarios are easily avoidable; only put your trust in reputable credit card issuers and banks. The advance-fee card offers may be tempting, but stay away anytime it’s from an illegitimate company.

4. Phishing emails

Email scammers can look all-too-real, even going as far as manipulating their displayed name to show someone you know. Like the fraudulent calls, these unsolicited schemes try to catch you while you’re not fully paying attention.

These emails can be made to look like your credit card company trying to contact you to confirm some personal information of yours or even your credit card number. They may go as far as to say there’s some “suspicious activity” or an error with your account information to get you to try and login. No matter how legitimate an email looks, ignore it and call your bank’s customer service number to verify if there’s an issue.

5. Malware and viruses

Hackers can install malware, a type of software that damages or infiltrates a computer or network, onto a legitimate website with low security. A virus or malware will download onto your computer when you visit the site and give the criminals access to your information. It’s unknown just how much of your data is exposed when this happens, but in the worst cases the criminals can gather enough to put your identity at risk.

In another scenario, hackers will put malware on public computers to capture any information you share with those computers, says Mike Urban, FICO’s former senior director of fraud product management.

Lawbreakers are also able to infiltrate the computer systems of banks, retailers and other businesses to steal personal account information, Noonan says.

Malware and viruses can also go after your smartphone, laptop or tablet. In some cases, a public Wi-Fi network may allow a criminal to prompt a software update on your device. If wrongfully installed, these malwares will sometimes track every keystroke you make to grab your data.

In combining these illegal softwares with phishing, hackers will send emails with attachments that may seem completely harmless. Upon clicking the attachment, malware instantly downloads onto the computer and leaves confidential information vulnerable. Emails masked as “familiar” senders may come with what looks to be a fun photo, but it’s really a link to a contaminated website that installs malware onto your computer.

What you can do

Avoiding habits that may lead to credit card fraud is a must for any responsible cardholder, so let’s go through the ways to protect your private info:

  • Set up mobile banking alerts for your smartphone. That way, you can be notified of unusual credit card activity as soon as possible.
  • Regularly monitor your accounts online, so you can identify fraudulent transactions sooner.
  • Use ATMs and gas stations in well-known areas or head inside to the bank or cashier to use your card. Also, using mobile wallets is an excellent, safe way to pay and avoid the chances of skimming.
  • Ignore phone calls, emails or any other communication from a company with offers that are too good to be true. Giving away any information or falling for a pay-in-advance scam could result in a nightmare.
  • Avoid public computers. Don’t log on to your email if your bank corresponds with you there. Urban suggests setting up an email account just for your finances and checking it from safe locations.
  • Avoid doing business with unfamiliar online vendors, Noonan says. Stick to established merchants and websites.
  • Install legitimate antivirus software on your device and avoid clicking on links or downloads from unknown sources.
  • Practice careful habits with your email and when browsing online. Check the sender, email address, subject and entire email for signs of a fraudulent message and look for websites beginning with https:// to ensure security.
  • If your information has been compromised, notify your financial institutions and local law enforcement. Ask the major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — to set up a fraud alert on your credit reports.