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Gas pump card reader

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My first hint of trouble came when the online photo editing program I use was blocked. I couldn’t use it, the message from the company said, because there was a problem with my payment.

I visited the company website and updated some information on my account, then tried again. Still no luck. There was a problem with my credit card and I needed to contact my bank, a new message explained.

Yes, there was a problem, the bank’s card services department told me. Someone in Denver had been trying to transfer money out of my checking account, and someone in Estonia had tried to pay restaurant and limousine charges using my credit card number.

I had been hacked—again—and the bank’s card services representative told me the hack apparently had happened at a business in Montpelier.

Hacking is not just a big city problem.

I talked to the manager of the business where it seems the problem occurred, and I say “seems” because it is hard to be sure. The manager of that business told me their computerized payment machines are checked regularly to guard against tampering. Still, even careful businesses can be caught off guard, and hackers like to target smaller businesses in areas where people may not be wary about fraud.

There are a number of things you should do to protect yourself from credit card fraud anywhere you go. The following suggestions are based on advice from a staff member at my bank’s branch in Montpelier and also from my own past experience.

• Be sure when you insert your credit or debit card to pay that neither the machine nor its card slot is compromised. Devices called “skimmers” can be inserted into vending machines or gasoline pumps to steal data about you from your card’s magnetic stripe or embedded chip. Does anything around the card slot look out of place? Does the slot where you insert your card wiggle or is it loose? Does the machine struggle with reading your card?

• Be sure there is not someone standing close to look over your shoulder or take video with a cell phone when you insert your credit or debit card or enter your PIN. Shield the PIN pad with your other hand, your purse, or another object while you enter the number.

• Keep an eye out when the server or salesperson takes your card away somewhere to use it. Most are trustworthy, but some might record a card number to charge things on it later or to pass on to an associate. My credit card was compromised that way once on a foreign trip. Many businesses now have portable card readers they can bring to you to record your payment rather than taking your card out of your sight.

• There is probably a camera trained on every ATM and its users. Does the camera look like it was installed separately from the machine, or like someone was trying to keep you from seeing it? You may want to use your body, coat, purse, or something else to block the camera’s view of the PIN pad or screen where you enter information.

• Use only ATMs or machines that are connected to the bank or business, preferably inside the building. My wife and I learned when we were living in another country that you never know who may be watching you withdraw cash at an ATM.

• Don’t ever give out personal financial data to someone who calls or sends you an email or text message saying there’s an official reason they need the information. The Internal Revenue Service, hospital, doctor’s office, Department of Motor Vehicles, charity organizations, bank, or other legitimate organizations are not going to call you and ask for your credit card number, bank account number, or other access to your bank or savings accounts. Callers who do that are scammers. Hang up.

• Check your bank or credit union account balances regularly. Many who rely heavily on their credit cards or electronic devices for purchases check their balances daily. Remember that if you use a credit card for purchases, there are legal protections that will help you get your money back through the bank. If you use a debit card, you do not have the same protection.

• The people in your bank or credit union’s card services department can help protect you. Once on a cross-country trip, I found my credit card blocked as I tried to buy gasoline. I learned the bank had blocked the card because I had used it three times in one day in three different states and that didn’t fit my usual pattern. Now when we go on trip, I call the bank card services department to let them know where and when they can expect to see me using my credit card. That way they can stop the phony charges for $3,000 worth of electronic equipment at a store in Germany or fuel for a boat at a marine supply depot in Indonesia.

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