While the coronavirus pandemic has brought out the best in many Americans—from committing to self-isolation and social distancing to learning new ways to connect with family, friends and co-workers—it also has the potential to bring out the worst. Think: Scammers.
According to reporting from the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. has seen a 35 percent spike in the “dollar volume” of credit and debit card fraud since April 2019, citing data gathered from Fidelity National Information Services Inc. (FIS).
There’s no shortage of bad actors who hope to use coronavirus-related anxiety to part people from their money, identity and credit card information, and if you’re already facing financial hardship, having your credit card information stolen can be even more detrimental. With this in mind, it’s important to know what you can do to protect yourself from credit card fraud.
Here are a few common ways your credit card information can be stolen, including prevention tips and what to do if you’ve already fallen victim to credit card fraud.
Untrustworthy websites, emails and other forms of communication
The current pandemic has prompted a number of coronavirus scams, including websites posing as COVID-19 test kit selling companies or fraudulent texts, phone calls and emails concerning stimulus checks from those posing as government agencies. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lists out a number of these scams and their identifiers here.
To safeguard your finances, avoid inputting any personal information—such as credit card or banking numbers—into unfamiliar websites (think: any website whose name and branding you don’t recognize or that arrived at via online advertisements.) There are plenty of well-established, reputable retailers and service providers to choose from, so stick to the sites you know and have used before.
Additionally, double-check the email address of any organization or person you receive communications from before clicking on links or providing even basic personal information, such as your name or phone number. In the same vein, if an unknown email address or phone number tries to solicit financial information from you, ignore their request.
According to the FTC, “The IRS won’t contact you by phone, email, text message or social media with information about your stimulus payment, or to ask you for your Social Security number, bank account or government benefits debit card account number. Anyone who does is a scammer phishing for your information.”
Charity donation scams
There are plenty of organizations that could use extra support right now, but there are also plenty of scam artists posing as charitable organizations.
According to PaymentsSource, it’s very possible for scammers to register as a charity or rename a prior business to reflect that of a charitable organization. Before you make a donation to a charity or nonprofit, scan sites like CharityWatch and Charity Navigator to confirm the organization is reputable and will use your funds for their intended purpose.
If you’re ever directly contacted by an organization identifying as a charity, know that requests to donate via gift card, cash or wired money are scams. To report the charity as such, you can file a complaint with the FTC. For further information on charity scams, read the FTC’s advice on donating wisely.
Fraudulent mobile payment schemes
Anyone you don’t know offering to sell you something coronavirus-related (like cleaning or medical supplies) is most likely a scammer and should be avoided. As a hard-and-fast rule, only make purchases through reputable, recognizable vendors.
Additionally, be on the lookout for Cash App scammers and those who claim they’ll send you a large amount of money in exchange for small, upfront payment; you’ll never get the payout promised.
How to prevent credit card fraud
There are myriad ways to prevent credit card fraud—from setting up two-factor authentication systems to reporting lost or stolen credit cards the moment you misplace them. To avoid falling into a fraudster’s trap, consider the following tips.
1. Use a credit card instead of a debit card for online purchases
First and foremost, if you use a debit card online and your card number gets stolen, the money is taken directly from your account. With credit cards, thieves don’t have direct access to your cash—purchases are simply charged to your account and require payment at the end of your billing cycle.
Further, in the case of debit cards, your liability increases the longer it takes you to identify and report a fraudulent transaction. If you wait more than two business days, for example, your liability jumps from $50 to $500. If it takes more than 60 days to report the fraud, you could be liable for the entire amount stolen. With credit cards, your liability caps at $50.
2. Regularly monitor your statements and credit report
It’s easy to get in the habit of ignoring your bank and credit card statements—but now is the time to start regularly monitoring your statements. To do so, simply log into your online accounts and review your recent transactions. Ask yourself: Did I make all of these purchases, or do some look unfamiliar?
Credit card companies are getting better and better at identifying fraudulent purchases. Still, that doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of tracking your own statements and taking action if you find any suspicious charges.
Additionally, make reviewing your credit report a habit. Through April 2021, you can request free weekly reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion via AnnualCreditReport.com. Once you have access to your reports, scan them for any changes, such as new lines of credit.
3. Consider a credit freeze
If you’d like to keep your credit accounts extra secure, consider a credit freeze. Freezing your credit prevents third parties from accessing your credit reports, in turn helping protect you from identity theft.
Identity thieves often attempt to take out new lines of credit under your name, but if your credit is frozen, a lender won’t be able to complete the credit inquiry (often called a “hard pull”) required to secure a new credit card or loan.
Of course, freezing your credit means you won’t be able to apply for new credit cards or loans, either. When you’re ready to apply for a rewards credit card, take out a personal loan or even rent an apartment, you’ll need to thaw your credit reports, first.
What to do if your information is compromised
Should you believe that someone is fraudulently using your credit card, your first step is to contact your credit card issuer. The sooner you call your credit card company, the sooner they can help you address the potential fraud—and protect you from future fraudulent transactions.
In many cases, your credit card issuer will contact you as soon as they suspect any fraudulent activity on your account. You may receive texts, emails or phone calls asking you to confirm whether you made a recent charge; if you get a text asking you to confirm a charge you know you didn’t make, don’t panic. Let your card issuer know you didn’t make the transaction and let them take over from there.
You might also want to set up fraud alerts on your credit report, which notifies lenders, creditors and anyone else who requests your credit report that you’ve recently been a victim of fraud or identity theft. Fraud alerts are helpful in preventing future credit card fraud by making lenders aware they need to re-confirm your identity before issuing new lines of credit.
The bottom line
To protect yourself from credit card fraud, be both thoughtful and cautious when sharing credit card information. Stick to retailers you know well, avoid making donations to charities you haven’t researched and never make peer-to-peer mobile payment transactions with someone you haven’t personally met.
If you do become a victim of credit card fraud, contact your credit card issuer right away; they’ll have systems in place to deal with the situation and protect your credit account from future fraudulent activity.