Keep your money secure

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By Jeff Kazmierski, Copy Editor

Another holiday season is here, and for most of us that means one thing – shopping.  Spending endless hours in traffic, driving all over town and sometimes to other cities, looking for the best deals on the perfect gifts for relatives we haven’t talked to all year.  

If you’re a typical shopper, you’ll probably be relying on a credit card or debit card to make most of your purchases.  They’re fast, convenient and easy to use.  But, they’re also easy and lucrative targets for thieves.  

So, in the spirit of the season I’d like to offer you a few tips to keep yourself and your money safe while you’re out shopping this year.

Last week two Gateway staffers, including myself, got hit by debit card theft.  I’m a fairly typical poor college student, and I keep my cash in separate accounts, so the thieves didn’t get away with much, but it still hurt.  

Fortunately, I do my banking with one of the most trustworthy financial institutions in the country, USAA.  They confirmed the fraudulent charges and were even able to tell me how the card had been compromised.  Apparently the details had been skimmed during an electronic card swipe, possibly at an ATM.

Surprised?  You shouldn’t be – ATMs have become prime targets for data theft.  Here, in a nutshell, is how it works.

First, the thief picks his target.  It’s usually a free-standing machine located well away from other businesses.  You’ve seen them; they’re the drive-up ATMs in the middle of parking lots near the strip mall where everything closes after 6 p.m. except maybe a pub or a few restaurants.  

Observing the patterns of use for that machine, the thief determines the best time to make his move.  At a convenient time, usually in the middle of the night, he installs a piece of hardware on the machine’s facia.  

This is a fairly simple process and takes only a few minutes. The  false front contains a scanner about the size of an SD card that grabs or “skims” the electronic data off each card as it’s swiped through the machine. In some cases, a small camera is installed above the keypad to capture PIN entries.

The thief may disguise himself as a repairman lending an air of legitimacy to the activity, or he may just cover up any security cameras already present.  Either way, it’s unlikely to be noticed until it’s too late.  The next day, anyone who uses the ATM has just given away everything the thief needs to make illegal copies of their debit or credit cards.

Scared yet?  It gets better – some skimmers include short-range antennas that transmit the data in real time.  And you probably won’t even notice the skimmer’s there until it’s too late.

Sometimes you need to carry cash, and ATMs can be convenient, but if you find yourself in that position, the best and safest way to do it is probably to use the “cash back” option at a grocery store or at Target or Wal-Mart.  That way you’ll maintain control of your card, you can be assured their machines aren’t skimming your details, and you’ll avoid paying the extortionate fees banks charge these days for accessing your own money.

Another way thieves steal card data is by handheld swipe devices.  These can be purchased online, sometimes for less than $50, and they work in a similar way to the ATM card skimmers.  If you’ve ever eaten out at a sit-down restaurant, you’ve probably handed your card over to the waiter without even thinking about it.  That’s a mistake.  

If you’re concerned about your information being stolen, one good way to prevent it is to never let your card out of your sight.  Any time you hand your card to someone else and you can’t see it, you’ve just created an opportunity for data theft.  I’m not saying this happens every time; the vast majority of people are trustworthy and just trying to make a living like the rest of us.  

But as the saying goes, one bad apple spoils the barrel.  And if you’ve ever been ripped off, that’s a mistake you don’t want to make again.  So keep your card in your hand and take it to the front till.  You may get some dirty looks, but that’s better than potentially getting robbed.

The economy still sucks.  This is a fact.  And when times are tough, you’ve got to be extra careful with your cash.  Following these simple procedures can save you a lot of grief later on, and will help you ensure you’re the one blowing your paycheck on gifts, not someone halfway across the country in a state you’ve never visited.  

Be safe, have fun and have a happy holiday season.

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