While the introduction of chip and pin technology made it more difficult for thieves to fraudulently use credit cards for in-person transactions, 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 you would be wise to keep an eye out for fraud and take steps to mitigate the damage if you find any.
Five ways credit card numbers can be stolen
But first, you may be wondering how hackers and thieves could get their hands on your credit card number to begin with. There are plenty of ways this can happen, including the following:
Major data breach
Large institutions, including banks and retail businesses, may be the victim of a data breach that puts 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.
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 watching. Make sure to install a VPN on your computer if you need to use the internet away from home fairly often.
Phishing emails may look official, but these fraudulent messages are crafted with a purpose. Most phishing emails try to take you to a fraudulent site to enter your account information, or they’ll ask you to call a fraudulent phone number where they will request your personal information and card details.
Spyware and malware
Downloading the wrong information can add spyware or malware 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. Be careful what you download and prevent spyware by purchasing your own antivirus software.
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 for figuring out which companies you use to hold your savings or investment accounts.
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. For starters, you should report the loss of your credit card or card number to your issuer immediately, which you can usually do using its toll-free number or 24-hour emergency phone number.
From there, the FTC says you should 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. Also, check your credit card statement carefully for purchases you didn’t make, and let your card issuer know of any fraudulent transactions immediately.
Your credit card issuer will typically close down the original account number and mail you out a new card with a different one. However, you should 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 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 the fact 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 Federal Bureau of Investigation (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 statements at least a few times per 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.
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.