How Do Thieves Steal Credit Card Numbers?

Last Updated on August 17, 2023

Close-up Photography Two Brown Cards

Photo by Pixabay

It started as a 49-cent charge to my credit card.

Then, another for 47 cents.

I groaned and thought, “No. Please don’t let this be a fraud.”

But it was – one call to my bank confirmed it.

How did they get my credit card number? That’s always the first thing we ask. The credit card was still safe and sound in my wallet.

As with other incidents, the bank never told me how my credit card number was stolen. I was issued a new card and had to update all my auto-billing and subscriptions. It was a pain.

But I still, to this day, HAVE NO IDEA how my card got into the wrong hands.

How am I supposed to keep it from happening in the future if I don’t know where I went wrong?

There’s a good answer to that, but we first need to look at how card numbers are commonly stolen and be more cautious in those areas. 

How Does Someone Get Your Credit Card Number?

1. Physical Credit Card Theft

Upon discovering that my credit card had been compromised, my immediate instinct was to retrieve my wallet. As I reached for it, I noticed that my card was still securely nestled in its designated slot, where it usually resides. Yet, the unsettling truth dawned upon me: if the credit card were to go missing, it would grant the thief unrestricted freedom to exploit it.

However, the implications of a missing wallet extend far beyond a single credit card. The repercussions become exponentially more distressing. Alongside the disappearance of your wallet, you may find your credit cards, debit cards, driver’s license, and insurance cards absent. This unfortunate scenario opens the door to rampant fraud and the dangerous possibility of identity theft.

2. Text and Email Phishing

You get a legit-looking email or text with a link.

The message could say there’s a problem with one of your accounts, a payment you’ve made, or the account itself. The goal is to get you to click the link.

You’re prompted to input your credit card details, including the expiration date, billing ZIP code, and CVV, when you click. 

The fraudster has everything necessary to steal your credit card number.

That’s phishing, and it’s one of the easiest ways for scammers to grab your information.

3. Voice Phishing

Voice phishing, also called “vishing,” is like phishing, only it’s done by phone.

Someone calls you, claiming to need your credit card information for something. It could be an unpaid bill, a problem with your account, or any number of other things.

You hand over the numbers and move on with your life. You may not even realize when your card is compromised that this was the incident that led to the theft.

4. Card Skimmers

Banking, Business, Button image

Image by Maria_Domnina

I think of skimmers whenever I insert my credit card into a machine.

They can be hard to detect.

A skimmer rests inside the area where the original card reader would be. They can be installed on a variety of card readers, but typically they’re found on ATMs and gas pumps.

There’s a reason for that. At those two locations, criminals can stay clear from the prying eyes of workers, who might see them tampering with the equipment.

You insert your card, and the equipment captures the information from your card for later use.

5. Public Wi-Fi

During a recent trip to attend my niece’s high school graduation, I found myself relying on Wi-Fi services at two different airports along the way. Fortunately, I didn’t need to utilize Wi-Fi networks at hotels or vacation rentals during this particular journey, although, under normal circumstances, I would have used those as well.

Once we put any device on public Wi-Fi, we’re immediately at risk.

There are multiple ways public Wi-fi CAN EXPOSE OUR DATA:

Man-in-the-middle attacks: With this scam, someone lurks between you and the router, intercepting data as you pass it back and forth. This is one reason experts recommend steering clear of conducting financial transactions or logging into banking sites while on public Wi-Fi.
Malware: Public Wi-Fi provides the perfect pot for malware soup. In just one go, a hacker can spread malware, taking advantage of any vulnerabilities in each device.
Malicious hotspots: If you regularly visit a specific café, you may know the Wi-Fi name by heart. But a scammer can easily add a fake name to the list if it’s a new spot. You think you’re logging onto public Wi-Fi, but you’re logging directly onto a criminal’s hotspot.

Related: Wi-Fi Hotspot Security To Stay Safe On The Internet.

6. Data Breaches

Every year, data breaches put credit card numbers at risk. In 2022, a total of 1,804 data breaches affected 422 million victims.

When a data breach puts your information at risk, the subject is supposed to notify you.

That doesn’t always happen.

When my credit card was used to purchase a bunch of fast-food gift cards a decade ago, I looked into data breaches. A popular online photo development site I had used in the past suffered a huge data breach, but I was never notified.

In 2022, an alarming number of public data breach notifications didn’t even include details about the scope of the attack and the number of victims hit. In fact, only 34 percent of data breaches had those details

In the unfortunate event of a hacker infiltrating a website where your personal data is stored, the consequences can be dire. The stolen information has the potential to be sold on the dark web, exposing you to various risks. It’s important to note that the illicit use of your credit card number may not occur immediately; it could remain dormant for an extended period, lying in the wrong hands until a later time.

6. Malware

You don’t need to be on public Wi-Fi for malware to infiltrate your device.

A simple link or visit to a scammy website can drop malicious files onto your hard drive.

One type of malware is known as a keylogger. This software is designed to capture every keystroke on your device.

That means that when you log into a financial site, your username and password can be captured.

When you input information like your Social Security number or birthdate, the malware will grab every digit.

And yes, when you enter your credit card number, CVV, and expiration date, the software also grabs that information.

There’s no way to know your data has been captured. Even if you eventually learn you have a keylogger installed, you won’t know what’s been stolen.

7. Other Opportunities

Whenever your credit card is out of your sight, it becomes vulnerable to potential risks. While it is true that in most cases everything goes smoothly, there have been unfortunate instances where employees have illicitly obtained credit card information, occasionally even using skimmers.

Again, this type of theft is rare, but they’re worth mentioning, particularly if you frequently dine in places where employees take your card away for processing.

You may also put your card at risk if you leave it unattended while traveling. If you leave your wallet in the room while you’re at the beach, someone from housekeeping could quickly copy the numbers.

woman busy on the phone at a cafe

Credit: Oana Cuesdeanu 

How to Protect Your Credit Card from Thieves

Reducing your risk starts with being aware of how these cards are stolen. Once you have that information, it’s time to take measures to protect yourself.

Here are some things you can do to keep your card number away from prying eyes.

1. Monitor and Detect

Federal law limits your liability to $50 if your card number is stolen. But early reporting is key, especially if it’s a debit card. You WON’T OWE MORE THAN $50 if you reported it within 60 days of the unauthorized activity.

I check my accounts first thing every morning. I scan the list of recent activities in search of anything unusual. That way, if something happens, I’ll know right away.

My bank also lets me freeze my card if something’s out of the ordinary. It’s a fairly standard feature now, so your card may have it, too.

If you have that feature, freeze your card the second you think something might be amiss. You can unfreeze it in just seconds.

Another way to get peace of mind is identity theft protection.

Services like Aura, IdentityForce, and LifeLock will help you if your identity is ever stolen.

You’ll also be alerted when suspicious activity is detected.

It can offer just the peace of mind you need.

2. Secure Your Connection

You don’t have to be on public Wi-Fi to put your data at risk.

Your own home connection can be hacked, as well.

Here are some things to do to safeguard your home Wi-Fi:

Upgrade your router to WPA3 to get the latest and best encryption.
Don’t use the default router name, password, and network name. Change each of those to something unique and tough to guess. For the public-facing network name, never use anything identifying, like your last name, family members’ first names, or pets.
Update your router’s firmware regularly. You can typically do this by typing your router’s IP address into a browser. You can find that IP address by going to your Wi-Fi settings and choosing the TCP/IP tab.
Turn off some of the convenience features on your network, including remote management, Wi-Fi Protected Setup, and Universal Plug and Play. These features can make it easier for a hacker to get in.

That covers your home network, but what about while you’re traveling?

You can always use your phone as a hotspot. Make sure your phone’s hotspot has a tough-to-guess password, though, as it will appear on the network list for nearby devices.

If you travel often, investing in a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is well worth it.

Services like Proton, ExpressVPN, and Surfshark are an affordable way to keep your data safe, whether you’re on public Wi-Fi or working from a friend’s house.

3. Use App Controls

What app controls are available? 

With my bank’s app, I can lock the card, report it as lost or stolen, and even dispute transactions. I can also set up alerts to be notified of every transaction (or every transaction that exceeds a certain dollar amount).

If you suspect your card (or card number) might be in jeopardy, you can lock it until you’ve verified that everything is okay. Once the danger has passed, you can unfreeze it WITH ONE TAP.

4. Be Careful With Card Readers

Tap to pay is convenient. I’ve long known that, but I’ve recently realized it’s safer than inserting the card.

So far, scammers haven’t figured out tap-to-pay fraud. Instead, card skimmers are installed in the area below where tap-to-pay happens.

Contactless pay is another option. Not all locations accept it, but if you can simply hold your phone near the card reader to pay (or have the employee scan your screen), you’ll reduce your skimming risk.

When you pay by inserting your card, examine the device for signs of tampering. Some businesses even place a seal on their card readers to make tampering easy to detect.

Card readers that are more visible to employees are also less risky. This includes readers at registers, especially if that business has security cameras installed.

For fuel pumps and ATMs, the more visibility, the better. Criminals target card readers that are out of the view of employees and security cameras.

If you’re really concerned, you can always go into the bank or gas station and pay there.

Paying with Credit Card for Delivery

Photo by Antoni Shkraba

What to Do If Your Credit Card Number Has Been Stolen

Sometimes, no matter what protective measures you take, those dreaded unfamiliar charges show up on your transaction history.

Or maybe you don’t see it at all, and your credit card issuer’s fraud department alerts you to the situation.

Either way, it’s important to take quick action to reduce damage and get your card replaced as soon as possible.

Here are some steps to take.

1. Freeze the Card

If you can freeze your card in the app, do that as soon as you suspect it has been compromised.

You can unfreeze it in seconds if all turns out to be okay, so there’s no harm in pausing things.

The next step should be to call the issuer. The number should be on the back if you still have the card. If not, you can find it on your statement, on the issuer’s website, or through a web search.

Let the card issuer know that you didn’t make the purchases.

This is where your issuer will typically cancel the card. If possible, ask for a replacement card to be expedited, and prepare to use another form of payment while you wait for the new card.

Don’t forget to check for any autopayments you have set up with that card. You’ll need to provide an alternate payment method for any charges coming through soon. Once your new card arrives, you can update those coming through later.

2. Change Your Passwords

Chances are, your card thief doesn’t have access to your account.

Just in case, update your password. Also, take a look at any other passwords.

It’s possible your card number was stolen due to a hacker accessing your device. So it’s important to lock things down as much as possible.

3. Keep an Eye on Your Credit Report

Credit card fraud can reach beyond your monthly billing statement.

Unauthorized charges can also make their way to your credit report. Your card might be denied and later appear as a negative entry on that report, impacting your score.

You’re entitled to one free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus every year. You can request it at AnnualCreditReport.com.

Look for any discrepancies and dispute them. If your credit card was stolen, not only do you have protection against charges, but creditors can’t report unpaid charges as delinquent.

4. Set Up Your New Card

Once your new credit card arrives, the real work begins.

(This is the part I always dread!)

You’ll need to update your card information with every creditor, utility company, retailer, streaming service, and subscription.

While you’re at it, take some measures to keep this new card safe.

Make sure you have the number and customer service number tucked away in a safe space so you can access it if you ever lose the card.

Set up notifications and watch your accounts each day.

Lastly, make sure you have a backup payment method in case your card has to be canceled in the future.

Conclusion

Determined thieves have no trouble tracking down credit card numbers. That means we all need to be vigilant to keep them safe.

Being aware of the risks is an important first step.

But it’s important to monitor your accounts to make sure you detect fraudulent activity when it first starts. Early detection is key to stopping criminals before they can do serious damage.

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