Skimming And Scanning:
Don't Let Your Credit Cards Go Shopping Without You

So, you take last month’s credit card statement out of the envelope, look it over and realize something’s wrong.

Your eyes tick off a string of charges that you know for a fact you didn’t make— $188.85 at the Ultimate Beef Jerky Outlet? While you may adore the tasty dried meat snack, you would never spend more than $150 on jerky. Never.

Finally, you go total bitch-cakes when you do some further sleuthing and trace back the mysterious $38 eBay charge on your card to a chicken nugget that is allegedly shaped like Abe Vigoda’s nose.

So the damage has been done, but it’s not irreversible. Most credit card companies are willing to strike the unauthorized charges from your bill and refund your money—as long as you notify them within 60 days of the issued statement. But the real question is: If the card is still in my fanny pack, how did it happen?

Criminals employ a number of nefarious ways to lift your credit card and banking information without getting "go-go gadget arm" on your pockets (or fanny pack if that’s how you roll).

Read below to find solutions to two forms of fraud that are widely talked about today—skimming and scanning.

Skimming credit/debit card information at point of sale (POS) stations (i.e., ATMs, gas pumps and cash registers.)

While this scam has been around for several years, skimming was named one of "2010’s Top Fraud Trends." One example of skimming occurs when thieves use a "universal key" to open gas pumps and embed a device that captures card numbers. They also position a pinhole camera nearby that records the pin numbers. Fake cards are then encoded with the information and fiscal havoc ensues.

How do skim artists do this without getting caught? Sometimes it’s an inside job, orchestrated by an employee of the institution. Other times it’s just good scouting; crooks pick stations that don’t have adequate camera surveillance. And any of those other instances in between, it’s the devil’s work. Seriously....

Solution: Don’t use single-standing POS terminals in badly lit or deserted areas; they’re the most likely targets for skimmer action.

Or, break the senseless cycle of plastic and start using the paper stuff. It’s not always as convenient as charging it, but it’s beats the hassle of canceling your card, updating your information with online merchants, waiting to get your new card in the mail ... you get the point.

Scanning radio frequency identification (RFID) chips on your credit/debit card

So what’s up with the microchip that’s implanted in all the credit/debit cards these days? Well, it’s actually a radio transmitter, and this type of technology has been around since WWII. RFID chip embedment is everywhere, from shoes (inventory management) to humans (for healthcare and security reasons ... and electronic-based government mind control—sorry, Philip K. Dick’s ghost made me say that).

Although banks claim that RFID chips on cards are encrypted to protect information, its been proved that scanners—either homemade or easily bought—can swipe the cardholder’s name and number. (A cell-phone-sized RFID reader powered at 30 dBms (decibels per milliwatt) can pick up card information from 10 feet away.

And while there hasn’t yet been a recorded case of RFID fraud, many experts recognize that it would be difficult track and that the verdict is still out as to how scanners will affect consumers in the future.

Solution: Some people recommend wrapping your card or bill fold in aluminum, but do you really want to be that guy with the tin foil wallet?

Other less socially damning suggestions: Buy a card sleeve or wallet that blocks RFID transmissions, stack your cards together to mitigate some of the scanner’s ability to read information or leave your cards at home and only use cash in public places.

While proactively outfoxing the fraudsters is an admirable plan of attack, it may not always keep you safe; crooks have a way of staying one step ahead of everyone. The best protection is being doggedly aware of your spending. This means religiously reading your credit card statements every month and keeping track of your receipts as points of reference. And as far as plastic goes, sometimes it’s just better to leave home without it.