Were you one of the 40 million people who shopped at Target with a debit or credit card between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15? I was, and so were a lot of other people I know. I don’t shop in stores much, but I happened to be in Target with both my business debit card and my personal card during that time period. Figures!
With recent news that the compromised card information is now being sold on the black market, and that the information does in fact include PIN numbers (albeit encrypted), those Target shoppers should take precautions sooner rather than later. Even if you weren’t one of those affected this time, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve either had a credit or debit card compromised in the past, or will in the future. It’s happened to me several times over the years. Thankfully many banks have computer programs that flag unusual transactions, and others were proactive in replacing cards used at Target immediately. But we should still take appropriate precautions on our own. Here are a few tips.
Monitor your accounts
Especially if you have automated your finances through online bill paying and auto payments, it’s easy to “set it and forget it.” Easy, but not a good idea. Debit card users especially should check their accounts daily for signs of unauthorized use. Fraudulent ATM withdrawals and purchases can quickly wreak havoc in a bank account, draining it and causing other transactions to bounce, not to mention leaving you broke. Target REDcard holders can set an alert through their online account that will send a notification whenever the card is used. Other banks and credit card issuers offer that feature as well.
Change your PIN
Target assures us that although PIN information was stolen, it was encrypted and not easily read. However, it is possible for the code to be cracked and your PIN to be exposed. Should thieves use your information to create a new, fake debit card, your PIN number will come in handy at the ATM. Changing your PIN regularly is a smart move for all of us; if your debit card information was stolen, it’s important to change it now. If you use that same PIN for other accounts, you might want to change those as well.
Replace your card
Even if your PIN number isn’t revealed, it’s easy to use a debit card without it; a thief could make online purchases, or use a new fake card to pay at the pump for gas or make store purchases as credit, for example. Replacing your credit card may not be necessary (but not a bad idea) since fraudulent activity probably won’t affect your finances immediately and your liability for those charges is limited. Those whose debit card information was stolen, though, should consider contacting the bank and getting a replacement card.
Check your credit report
All consumers are entitled to one free copy of their credit report from each of the three credit bureaus — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax — once a year through annualcreditreport.com, and that’s something that we should utilize. Requesting a report from one bureau every four months can monitor your credit. Aside from fraudulent charges, hackers may put your stolen credit card information together with other pieces of data that are “out there” on you, and open new credit accounts in your name. Checking your credit report regularly will allow you to see if anything has popped up.
Place fraud alert or freeze credit
Checking your credit report every four months only provides information after the fact, though, and still leaves four months of possible activity undetected. As a preventive measure, you may want to notify one credit bureau to place a fraud alert on your account (that bureau will notify the other two). A fraud alert is free, and requires any creditor to verify your identity before issuing new credit in your name. This can slow down the opening of fraudulent accounts, but may not stop it completely if the thief has gathered enough information on you to falsely verify himself/herself as you or used your information to create additional identifying documents. The fraud alert is initially in place for 90 days, and you may renew for additional 90-day periods.
Freezing credit on the other hand stops anyone, including you, from obtaining new credit in your name. To freeze your credit, you must request a credit freeze from each of the three bureaus directly and pay a fee, usually under $10 each. If you are victim of fraud, the fee is waived. Should you wish to apply for credit in the future, you can temporarily thaw out your credit, or permanently lift the freeze. Each of those once again requires a fee. You can be sure with a credit freeze that no one will be opening new accounts and leaving you with the bill.
Target will be offering free credit monitoring to all who were affected, although details are not available yet. There are, of course, several commercial credit monitoring services on the market, with various ranges of monitoring, protections and fees. Some offer assistance should your identity in fact be stolen, and others simply monitor your accounts for suspicious activity. Whether to use a service like this or not depends on your level of vulnerability as well as your own diligence in watching your credit yourself.
Is it still safe to use a debit card?
The list of places where you shouldn’t use your debit card is growing. Gas pumps and ATMs for example, are particularly vulnerable to skimmers designed to steal your information when you swipe. Anywhere a credit card number can be stolen (which seems to be about anywhere these days) applies to a debit card as well, but you can lose money a whole lot faster if it’s your debit card number that is stolen.
Going back to cash is one solution, but the convenience and recordkeeping features of using a debit card are certainly nice to have.
One alternative may be to use a credit card dedicated to your everyday spending. Doing so requires the discipline of holding on to what you would have otherwise spent with your debit card to have the money for the payment when the credit card bill comes due. If that is an issue for you, keeping a running tally of your spending might help, and so might making a payment on the card each week or each pay period if your account allows for multiple payments.
It’s a shame that we need to take so many precautions, but today’s reality is that our expectations of privacy are not what we enjoyed in the past, and we need to do what we can to protect ourselves from the inevitable security breach.
Contacting credit bureaus to place a freeze:
Federal Trade Commission
Form 14039 Identity Theft Affidavit