One Simple Act Can Protect You From Credit Card Fraud

Young woman using smartphone
Eric Audras/PhotoAlto

By Matt Schultz

Fourteen times a day.

That's how often the average Facebook (FB) user with a smartphone checks the social network, according to a 2013 International Data Corp. study commissioned by Facebook. Add all those visits up, and smartphone users spend about a half hour each day just on that one website.

We don't think anything of visiting our favorite sites every day, often more than once. But what about your bank's website, or your credit card issuer's? How often do you visit them? The answer is likely very different. And in this age of data breaches and fraud, that can lead to trouble.

When you log in to your bank or credit card website, you might be surprised to see just how many transactions there are. After all, you probably can't recall every single purchase you made in the past 30 days –- possibly even the past 10 days. We all have more important things to think about than the last time we got gas or a soda at the convenience store. That's a problem. And it's one that credit card and debit card fraudsters count on.

The $2 Test

One of the most common ploys used by credit card fraudsters is to make a small purchase at a gas station or a convenience store to make sure that the stolen credit card information they have is valid, and that the account is still active. Keeping that initial purchase small helps them avoid setting off any alarm bells with the victimized cardholder.

Think about it: If you saw a strange $2 purchase on your card from a few weeks ago, how likely would you be to take the time to call your issuer and have the charge wiped out? Would you even be sure it was a mistake? And that assumes that you would even notice the charge. So how do fight this kind of fraud? With more frequent visits to your banks' websites.

  • Make it part of your routine. We're all creatures of habit, so build checking your bank accounts into your daily schedule. It may seem a little unusual at first, but after a few days, it'll be old hat and you won't even think about it.
  • Focus more on your checking account. Not willing to check all your accounts so often? If you're only up for adding one to your daily routine, make it your checking account. That's because time is of the essence when it comes to debit cards and fraud. With a credit card, federal law typically limits your liability for fraudulent activity to $50, regardless of when you report the activity. That's not the case with debit cards: If you report the fraudulent debit card activity within two days of seeing it, your liability under federal law is $50. Wait longer than that and your liability shoots up to $500. (If you wait more than 60 days, there may be no limits to your liability.) Plus, remember that debit card fraud takes real money out of your bank account -– money that can take up to two weeks for the bank to replace. That missing money could cause a mortgage payment or car payment to bounce, and that can cause even bigger problems.
  • Remember that it gets easier the more often you do it. If it's the first time you've checked your bank account, it might take a little while to review several dozen transactions. But when you log in the next day, and every day thereafter, you'll only have a few to check out -– and chances are that they will be fresh in your mind, so any fraudulent ones stick out like a sore thumb.

The vast majority of times you check your account online, it'll take only a minute or so, and nothing will look amiss. But if the day comes when something does look strange, you'll be ready to act and you'll be glad you took the time -– even though it briefly kept you from viewing pictures of your friends' kids or videos of piano-playing cats on Facebook.

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One Simple Act Can Protect You From Credit Card Fraud

Managed to get that raise or promotion? Fantastic -- now don't go out there and spend it all immediately. In classic "keeping up with the Joneses" fashion, too many of us see an increase in salary or a sudden windfall (like an inheritance) as an excuse to take our lifestyle up a notch. We buy bigger houses than we need, get the latest gadgets even though ours work just fine,and spring for fancy steak dinners just because we can.

​Instead, whenever your financial situation gets a boost, consider the best ways to put that money to work for you. The truly wealthy are those whose money continues to grow and earn them more, even when they're not actively doing anything with it.

The average American household that carries credit card debt holds a balance of around $15,000. If you're among those who have a credit card balance, you've probably seen the little chart on your monthly statement telling you how much you'll pay in interest over the next several years if you make only the minimum payment. (If you haven't, look at it.) The same chart will also compare that to a "suggested" payment that's slightly higher. 

​Our recommendation? Throw everything you can at paying your balances off as fast as possible. And make sure not to take on any additional debt in the future; if you can't pay for a consumer good out of pocket, don't finance it.
We don't demonize student loan debt the way we do credit card debt because we see an education as an investment -- and higher education often is the difference between one income bracket and another. Similarly, many people justify taking out a car loan by stating that they need a car to get to work.

​That said, debt is still debt, and the longer you take to pay it off, the more interest you'll pay. Once you've freed yourself of credit card debt, paying down your car and student loan balances should be next on your list.

Whether it's to handle an unexpected car repair, a sudden illness or a major plumbing problem, you should always have some money set aside to cover unforeseen expenses. Set up a regular monthly transfer from your checking to your savings account to earmark this money before you're tempted to touch it. If necessary, cut back in another budget category (like eating out or entertainment) to free up the funds to save more.

​Putting aside a little each month could prevent you from getting socked with a hefty bill you can't afford and then need to finance.

No matter your age, you should be adding to your retirement funds -- such as your 401(k) or individual retirement account -- each month. Just setting aside money sporadically won't cut it; you need to identify how much you'll need to live on once you stop working and monitor whether you're on track to reach that amount.

​Here's a quick-and-dirty rule of thumb: multiply your annual spending by 25. This is the amount you'll need in your retirement portfolio, if you assume that you'll withdraw 4 percent per year to live on during your retirement. In other words, you'd need $1 million in your portfolio to live on $40,000 annually. Creating a plan will help you make sure you're able to retire the way you envision.
A home is a big investment, and sometimes that investment doesn't wind up netting you the return you thought it would.

The biggest culprit is having too large a balance on your mortgage, which detracts from your own personal stake in the current market value for your home. The sooner you pay this amount down, the better your home equity will be.

​You also want to be careful when purchasing a new home. Buying in a neighborhood that's on the downward spiral or buying the most expensive home on the block, likely won't net you a good return when it's time to sell. Also take care to stay away from custom renovations (like turning the garage into a recreation room), which could negatively affect your resale value. 

Paying high investment fees eats away at your gains. And since your gains compound over time, this creates a domino effect that can really chip away at your wealth. Take a close look at your investment companies' fees and shop around to make sure they're not taking more of your money than they need to be.

If you don't have a long-term investment vision and are simply playing the market, you could seriously undermine your wealth-building potential. Stop paying attention to market fluctuations, media pundits and the stories of your friends and family. Instead, create your own long-term investment strategy that will maximize your overall returns. Resist the urge it play it ultra-conservative (or fall for get-rich-quick schemes) and educate yourself on the best way to make your dollars work for you.

​If you're having trouble making sense of your options or want a second opinion, seek the help of a trusted financial adviser.
Based on your experience and seniority level, education and industry, you should have a fairly good idea how much you ought to be making at your job. If you don't, check out a site like PayScale to get a ballpark figure.

If you're not making what you're worth, you're doing more than leaving money on the table; you're also losing all the compound growth and investment returns that money could be generating for you. Invest in yourself with professional development and continuing education, make the case for that raise or promotion, or seek out a company who will value you higher.

If you don't have proper insurance coverage, you're taking a very big risk that could come back to bite you. Too many people think the worst can't happen to them, but the hard truth is you can't predict the future, and scrimping on sufficient insurance is never a good idea.

Of all the things we're hesitate to part with our money for, adequate insurance coverage should not be one of them. No matter your age, everyone should be properly covered with:

  • Health insurance.
  • Disability insurance.
  • Homeowner's or renter's insurance.
  • Flood insurance (if you live in a flood-prone area).
  • Umbrella liability insurance (especially if you own a small business).

If a spouse or children relies on you for support, make sure you have a decent term life insurance policy, as well.


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