When it comes to identity theft and credit card fraud, it's becoming more important than ever to be vigilant and take steps to protect your personal information. Over the last few years, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fraud rate has skyrocketed. In 2021 alone, the number of adults impacted by traditional identity fraud increased by more than 50%, with 1 in 20 people becoming victims.1
"The most reliable way of finding fraud before it gets out of hand is to keep a watchful eye on all your accounts and your credit reports," says Stefan Ross, vice president of credit card products at Fidelity.
These tips can help you spend safely and guard your sensitive data.
1. Consider a contactless card
These credit cards look just like EMV chip cards (they dip into a sensor rather than being swiped). Contactless cards show an image of 4 curved lines somewhere on the card. That tells you that you can tap the card over a sensor when you go to pay—rather than inserting the chip into a reader.
- Your card must be pretty close to the sensor—within 2 inches—to transmit the information.
- Rather than giving the merchant your credit card number, the card sends a one-time code—just like the chip.
2. Be aware: Zero-liability fraud protection
Credit card issuers offer zero-liability fraud protection. That means if a fraudulent transaction appears on your account, you can alert the card issuer and follow their process for reporting the crime. You won't have to pay for purchases you didn't make.
- Be sure to check your accounts regularly to make sure that you recognize all of the charges.
3. Set up fraud alerts to monitor your accounts
Setting up alerts can help you manage your accounts—and help you spot fraud. Alerts can typically be set on the card issuer's website or app. Sign up for automated alerts of suspicious account activity wherever offered. It may be a good idea to sign up for alerts via text and email. If an account is taken over, hackers may be able to intercept alerts sent by SMS text or phone call.
4. Alerts can also help you manage your accounts
Card issuers typically offer a number of different alert options. For instance, you can choose to get a text or email anytime a purchase is made on the card, or you can even set a purchase limit that would trigger an alert. You can also request alerts when your balance reaches a certain threshold, when you're near your limit, when the payment date is approaching—and more.
5. You may be able to freeze your account
Some cards allow you to freeze your account for extra security. Recurring payments and rewards are still allowed to go through, plus transactions that were made before the freeze, but any new purchases are declined until you unfreeze the account. The feature can generally be activated online or through a card issuer's app, so you don't even have to speak with anyone to freeze and unfreeze your account.
6. Take advantage of digital wallets
Most smartphones have a digital wallet. You add your credit or debit card information and then you can use your smartphone (or smartwatch) to pay in a brick-and-mortar store or online when retailers offer the option. Digital wallets work by transmitting a unique, random transaction number to the merchant instead of your card number.
Your account information is encrypted in your digital wallet, and can only be accessed via password or, with most mobile devices, your fingerprint or facial recognition. And, if your card information is ever lost or stolen, banks can reissue a new one immediately to your phone, instead of having to wait days for a card to arrive in the mail.
- If you ever misplace or lose your phone, you can lock your digital wallet remotely. Plus, there are no fees for using digital wallets.
7. Follow safe online shopping guidelines
The first step to safe online shopping is to check that you're shopping on a secure website. Look at the URL to find out if it's secure—it should begin with "https" not "http." The "s" indicates that the connection between your internet browser and the company's server is encrypted. You'll also see a padlock icon next to the URL in your browser.
- If you set up accounts with merchants or websites, make sure that you use strong passwords—and don't reuse the same password across multiple sites.
- Make sure your device, whether it's a computer, phone, or tablet, has the latest security updates from the system maker.
- When shopping away from home on your computer, phone, or tablet, avoid using public wi-fi to help keep your data secure.
- Consider using a credit card rather than a debit card for online shopping. Even if you do everything perfectly, you may end up shopping on a retail site that has been compromised. That could leave your bank account vulnerable.
8. Stay safe while traveling
It can be a good idea to call your card issuer and let them know you'll be traveling away from your usual area. One way financial institutions fight fraud is by declining transactions that seem to be wildly different than your usual pattern. Calling ahead of time can help ensure that you have access to your cards.
Before traveling, consider making a copy of all the cards you carry in your wallet—that way you'll have the emergency phone numbers handy plus a list of your cards.
9. Practice good internet habits in general
Guarding against hackers and scammers can help keep all of your sensitive information safe.
- Ignore deals, freebies, and awards that sound too good to be true. Disregard offers that appear to come from unusual foreign contacts, as well as requests from strangers for help.
- Ignore phone calls, emails, or texts that appear to be from the IRS. The IRS will not contact you by phone, email, text message, or social media to request personal or financial information.
- Be suspicious of anyone requesting your Social Security number, date of birth, financial account number, PIN, email, or passwords—especially if there is a request to verify your information when you were not expecting it.
- Never click a link or download an attachment inside an unexpected email. Go to the company's website and log in to your account from there.
- Never provide personal information over the phone to an unsolicited caller. If you think the call might be legitimate, hang up, and call the company directly.
10. Use all of the security features available and monitor your data
Many companies, including Fidelity, go to great lengths to safeguard customers' information and provide security tools. For instance, Fidelity offers 2-factor authentication, designed to prevent someone from accessing your account, even if they have your password.
Here are a few actions you can take to reinforce those safeguards.
- Sign up for 2-factor authentication when offered.
- Make sure your financial institutions have up-to-date contact information for you, especially your mobile number.
- Check your credit report regularly.