Despite technological innovations making it more difficult to use a stolen credit card for fraudulent transactions in person, hackers tend to be endlessly creative when it comes to theft.

The reality is, there are plenty of ways thieves can get their hands on your credit card account numbers, which they can easily use to make purchases or wreak other types of havoc using your name.

A stolen credit card or account number could also be one of the first signs of identity theft, so keep an eye out for credit card fraud and be prepared to take steps to mitigate the damage if you find any.

Ways your credit card numbers can be stolen

In today’s digital-first world, your physical credit card may no longer be a hacker’s prime target. But that doesn’t mean they can’t still get their hands on your credit card number. Here are a few credit card theft practices to watch out for:

1. Phishing emails

Phishing emails often look legitimate on the surface, but these fraudulent messages are crafted with a nefarious purpose. Many phishing emails try to get you to click a button or link that takes you to a familiar-looking fraudulent site to enter your account information. Phishing emails may also prompt you to click a link or download a file containing spyware, which hackers can use to export your card details and other information.

Another common phishing tactic is to provide an urgent (and entirely bogus) reason that you need to call a company, like your credit card company or a Social Security office. The email will list a fraudulent phone number and, when you call, request your personal information and even your card details to “confirm your identity.”

2. Public Wi-Fi networks

Public internet networks, like the ones you find in hotels and airports, can easily put you at risk if you enter your account information or open sensitive documents and someone is monitoring the network.

Make sure to install a VPN on your computer if you need to use the internet away from home fairly often.

3. Major data breach

Large institutions, including banks and retail businesses, can be susceptible to targeted data breaches that put your credit card information and other personal details at risk. Some of the biggest data breaches of the last decade, including a Capital One data breach in 2019 and Equifax breach in 2017, have led to tens of millions of consumers having their information stolen.

4. The old-fashioned ways: your trash and ATM skimming

Some thieves will still try to steal your credit card data the old-fashioned way — so it still pays to stay diligent with any physical copies of your information. For example, your trash can be a treasure trove of credit card and account numbers or for figuring out which companies you use for your savings or investment accounts.

ATM card skimming still happens, too. This type of fraud occurs when ATMs and other payment terminals are bugged with devices that gather your card information when you insert or swipe your card. There’s even data that shows ATM skimming on the rise: In mid-2022, FICO reported an increase of more than 700 percent year-over-year in card skimming fraud.

How to check if your credit information has been stolen

  • Keep an eye on your credit card statements: Your first line of defense in ensuring someone isn’t making fraudulent charges on your accounts is tracking and monitoring your spending. Keep an eye on your credit card statements regularly to make sure the reported transactions align with your actual spending history. If you do happen to stumble across any unusual activity, report it to your credit card issuer immediately.
  • Check your credit report for changes: Be certain your accounts and identity are protected by monitoring your credit report. You can check your credit reports each week for free from all three credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — using through Dec. 31, 2023. Fraudulent activity on a credit report can hurt your credit score, so it’s important to dispute the information as soon as you discover any inaccurate information.
  • Use a credit and identity theft monitoring service: If you suspect unusual activity on your credit accounts, consider using a credit and identity theft monitoring service to review your credit reports and help you get to the bottom of any wrongdoing. You can access free or paid services offered through your bank or one of the three credit bureaus.

What to do if your credit card number is stolen

If your credit card number has been stolen, don’t wait to take action. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) outlines the steps you should take right away:

  • Report your lost credit card or card number to your issuer immediately. You can usually do this using its toll-free number or 24-hour emergency phone number, or report it using your online account or mobile app.
  • Follow up with a letter or email that includes your account number, the date and time the card was noticed missing and when you reported the loss. Keep a copy of your letter for your records.
  • Check your credit card statement carefully for purchases you didn’t make and report any fraudulent transactions immediately.
  • Carefully monitor your credit reports to make sure the theft of your card hasn’t led to other instances of identity theft.

Am I responsible for fraudulent credit card purchases?

One big benefit of using credit cards is zero fraud liability protection. Under most issuers, when someone makes a fraudulent purchase on your account, you won’t be on the hook for a single cent. Even without this protection, the absolute most you could be liable for is $50, thanks to protections included in the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA).

On the other hand, you could potentially be held liable for fraudulent purchases made with a debit card. This may include all the money in your bank account if a thief is able to use your debit account number to drain it, and you don’t notice the fraud within 60 days of your bank statement being sent to you.

How to protect your credit card information

You can begin taking steps today to protect your credit card information and identity:

Only use secure websites

Avoid entering your credit card numbers and personal information on unsecured websites. Looking for a padlock icon or “https” within the web browser domain is a good place to start, but not a guarantee of security. Always double check the website address when you navigate to a new site and only click links from trusted sources.

Don’t give your account number over the phone

Take caution when anyone solicits personal information or wants your credit card number over the phone. This is especially true if they called you to initiate the transaction.

Check your credit card statements regularly

The best way to protect against credit card fraud is by keeping a close eye on your accounts. Check your credit card statements at least once a month to make sure each charge on your credit card is actually yours. If you find suspicious charges or purchases on your accounts, inform your credit card issuer right away.

Keep an eye on your card during in-person transactions

If you’re using a credit card in a restaurant or retail store, try to avoid situations where the employee processing your card walks away from you and takes your card out of your view, where they might have the chance to write down your card number, expiration date and security code. Similarly, always leave your wallet in a safe spot. If you are at the gym or taking a lunch break at work away from your desk, don’t leave your wallet unsecured.

Remove your credit card information from e-commerce sites

Reduce your risk of falling victim to a data breach by removing your credit card information from any non-essential sites or retailers. For example, you might save your credit card information to your Amazon or Lyft account to make checking out easier, but this can also make you more susceptible to theft.

The bottom line

Any type of card you use for purchases can put you at risk of fraud, but there are steps you can take to lessen the chances of becoming a victim. Plus, no matter how much a fraudster charges to your credit card, you’ll still be protected. You can only be liable for up to $50 and it’s likely your credit card issuer won’t ask you to repay any of the charges.

Still, make sure you keep your credit card number and information as safe as you can. Your financial losses due to credit card fraud may be limited, but you’ll still have to deal with the hassle and stress.