While the introduction of chip-and-pin technology made it more difficult for someone 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 take steps to mitigate the damage if you find any.

5 ways credit card numbers can be stolen

With your physical credit card no longer the typical target, you may be wondering how hackers and thieves can get their hands on your credit card number, to begin with. There are plenty of ways this can happen, including the following:

1. Phishing emails

Phishing emails may look official, but these fraudulent messages are crafted with a nefarious purpose. Most 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.

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 Social Security office. They will list a fraudulent phone number and, when you call, request your personal information and even your card details to “confirm your identity.”

2. Spyware

Downloading or opening the wrong file from an email or website can add spyware to your computer, which is put there with the goal of exporting your card details and other information hackers can use to steal your money or your identity. For example, keylogging software, like a skimmer, can compromise your credit card while it is in your wallet. But this form of spyware can end up on your computer or device if you accidentally click a link attached to a phishing email. Be careful what you download and prevent spyware by purchasing your own antivirus software.

3. Public WiFi 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.

4. 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 the Capital One data breach of 2019, led to tens of millions of consumers having their information stolen.

5. The old fashioned ways: your trash and ATM skimming

Finally, don’t forget that some thieves still try to steal your credit card data the old-fashioned way. Your trash can be a treasure trove when it comes to finding credit card and account numbers or figuring out which companies you use for your savings or investment accounts.

Though less common nowadays, ATM skimming still happens. This type of fraud occurs when ATMs and other payment terminals are bugged with recording devices that gather your card information when you insert or swipe your card.

How to check if your credit information has been stolen

  • Check your credit report for changes: You can make certain fraudulent activity isn’t occurring by keeping an eye on your credit report. You can regularly check your credit reports each week for free from all three credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax and TransUnion—using the website AnnualCreditReport.com. This is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Federal Trade Commission, Consumers can access their free credit reports weekly until April 20, 2022. Fraudulent activity on a credit report can hurt your credit score, so it is important to dispute the information as soon as you discover any inaccurate information.
  • Utilize a credit and identity theft monitoring service: If you suspect unusual activity on your credit accounts, credit and identity theft monitoring services review your credit reports and help you get to the bottom of any wrongdoing. You can access free or paid service offered through your bank, one of the three credit bureaus, or companies like LifeLock, Identity Guard and IdentityForce.
  • Keep an eye on your credit card statements: You can stay on top of your credit accounts by keeping an eye on your credit card statements regularly. By doing so, you can monitor your transactions more closely to ensure they align with your actual spending history. If you do happen to stumble across any unusual activity, report it to your credit card issuer immediately.

What to do if your credit card number is stolen

If your credit card number has been stolen, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) outlines the steps you should take right away:

  • Report the loss of your 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 nobody has more of your information and that the theft of your card hasn’t led to other instances of identity theft.
  • You can check your credit reports each week for free from all three credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax and TransUnion—using the website AnnualCreditReport.com.

Am I responsible for fraudulent credit card purchases?

The good news about credit card theft is that most credit cards offer zero fraud liability protection, meaning you’re not on the hook for a single cent in fraudulent purchases. However, the absolute most you could be liable for is $50, thanks to protections included in the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA).

This is a huge departure from your potential liability for fraudulent purchases made with a debit card, which could 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

When it comes to protecting your credit card information and identity, there are plenty of steps you can take right away. Most of them are also easy to implement, including the following:

Only use secure websites

According to the FBI, it’s crucial to avoid entering your credit card numbers and personal information on unsecured websites. “Sometimes a tiny icon of a padlock appears to symbolize a higher level of security to transmit data,” according to the bureau’s site. “This icon is not a guarantee of a secure site but provides some assurance.”

Don’t give your account number over the phone

The FTC warns that you should proceed cautiously with anyone who 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 a retail store, try to avoid situations where the employee processing your card walks away from you and takes your card out of your view. If they are able to take your card into another area away from you, 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 in a place that isn’t secure and in plain sight.

Remove your credit card information from e-commerce sites

In order to avoid the possibility of falling victim to a data breach, the easiest thing you can do is remove your credit card information from any non-essential sites or retailers. For example, consumers save their credit card information to Amazon or Lyft accounts to make checking out easier, however, you make yourself more susceptible to being hacked by leaving your account numbers on these sites.

The bottom line

Credit cards are always going to be susceptible to fraud, but there are steps you can take to lessen the chances of becoming a victim. It’s also nice to know that, no matter how much a fraudster charges to your credit card, 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.

Either way, 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 of it all.