If you asked Americans 10 years ago what their biggest fears were, chances are many would have said domestic terrorism. Today, another type of criminal has U.S. citizens on edge: the cyber thief.
While national security is still a big worry, a recent survey of 1,000 Americans by IT firm Unisys identified financial security such as credit card fraud as the biggest security concern for 2014.
Perhaps to blame are the growing number of high-profile attacks. The December Target (TGT) breach led to the theft of 40 million card accounts, and 70 million names, emails and addresses.
"Security threats against enterprises have grown exponentially -- in size, scope and sophistication," Unisys said in the report. "While cloud computing, BYOD and social media are changing the rules of the game for enterprises, they have intensified security challenges for CIOs and CSOs like never before."
For the first time since the advent of the Internet, cyber security is now a boardroom and c-suite-level issue. Target's CEO and CIO both stepped down because of the breach -- and chances are this isn't going away anytime soon.
1. Financial Security
Financial security was the top concern among Americans polled, notably the abuse of their credit card data. Fifty-nine percent of Americans polled -- up from 52 percent last year -- said they are now "seriously concerned" about the possibility of their card information falling into the wrong hands.
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Thirty-seven percent of Americans in the Unisys poll also said they were worried about the security of online shopping and online banking, up from 34 percent last year.
"Businesses that ignore the risk of data breaches do so at their own peril," Unisys said.
2. Identity Theft
The thought of having a person impersonating your identity is almost as frightful. Fifty-seven percent of Americans in the survey said they were seriously concerned about someone gaining access or misusing their personal information.
Some 16.6 million U.S. residents over the age of 16 were victims of at least one incident of identity theft in 2012, amounting to more than $24.7 billion in direct and indirect losses, according to the latest Victims of Identity Theft report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Of course, war and terrorism are still major concerns -- third on this list.
Forty-seven percent of Americans (about the same as last year) listed war and/or terrorism, as well as other issues affecting national security, as major worries in 2014.
This comes as unrest spikes in other parts of the world, including in Russia and Ukraine, and about a year after the Boston Marathon bombing -- the worst domestic terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001.
Why Your Bank Thinks Someone Stole Your Credit Card
Biggest Fear Among Americans: Financial Fraud
One reason why Marquis' gas purchases might have triggered a fraud lockdown? Filling their tank is a common first move for credit card thieves.
"Some of the things they look at are small-dollar transactions at gas stations, followed by an attempt to make a larger purchase," explains Adam Levin of Identity Theft 911.
The idea is that thieves want to confirm that the card actually works before going on a buying spree, so they'll make a small purchase that wouldn't catch the attention of the cardholder. Popular methods include buying gas or making a small donation to charity, so banks have started scrutinizing those transactions.
Of course, it's not a simple matter of buying gas or giving to charity -- if those tasks triggered alerts constantly, no one would do either with a credit card. But Levin points to another possible explanation: Purchases made in a high-crime area are going to be held to a higher standard by the bank.
"It's almost a form of redlining," he says. "If there are certain [neighborhoods] where they've experienced an enormous amount of fraud, then anytime they see a transaction in the neighborhood, it sends an alert."
(Indeed, Erin tells me that one of the gas purchases that triggered an alert took place in a rough part of Detroit, which she visited specifically for the cheap gas.)
People who steal credit cards and credit card numbers usually aren't doing it so they can outfit their home with electronics and appliances. They don't want the actual products they're fraudulently buying; they're just in it to make money. So banks are always on the lookout for purchases of items that can easily be re-sold.
"Anytime a product can be turned around quickly for cash value, those are going to be the items that you would probably assume that, if you were a thief, you would want to get to first," says Karisse Hendrick of the Merchant Risk Council, which helps online merchants cut down on fraud. Levin says electronics are common choices for fraudsters, as are precious metals and jewelry.
Many thieves don't want to go through the rigmarole of buying laptops and jewelry, then selling them online or at pawnshops. They'd much prefer to just turn your stolen card directly into cold, hard cash.
There are a few ways that they can do that, and all of them will raise red flags at your bank or credit union. Using a credit card to buy a pricey gift card or load a bunch of money on a prepaid debit card is a fast way to attract the suspicions of your credit card issuer. Levin adds that some identity thieves also use stolen or cloned credit cards to buy chips at a casino, which they can then cash out (or, if they're feeling lucky, gamble away).
When assessing whether a purchase might be fraudulent, banks aren't just looking at what you bought and where you bought it. They're also asking if it's something you usually buy.
"The issuers know the buying patterns of a cardholder," says Hendrick. "They know the typical dollar amount of transaction and the type of purchase they put on a credit card."
Your bank sees a fairly high percentage of your purchases, so it knows if one is out of character for you. A thrifty individual who suddenly drops $500 on designer clothes should expect to get a call -- or have to make one when the bank flags the transaction. If you rarely travel and your card is suddenly used to purchase a flight to Europe, that's going to raise some red flags.
Speaking of Europe, the other big factor in banks' risk equations is whether you're making a purchase in a new area. I bought a computer just days after moving from Boston to New York, and had to confirm to the bank that I was indeed trying to make the purchase. Levin likewise says that making purchases in two different cities over a short period of time raises suspicions.
"I go from New York to California a lot, and invariably someone will call me [from the bank], " he says. Since one person can't go shopping in New York and California at the same time, any time a bank sees multiple purchases in multiple locations in a short period, it's going to be suspicious.