The 5 Riskiest Places to Use Your Credit Card

by Lyle Daly | Updated July 21, 2021 - First published on April 8, 2020

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A female cashier at a restaurant swiping a credit card in a mobile card reader attached to a tablet.

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For the many consumers who use credit cards, fraud is an ever-present risk. Credit card fraud reports nearly tripled from 2014 to 2018, and each time you use your card, there's a chance that the information could be compromised.

Your credit card information could be stolen no matter where you are, but certain locations are fraud hotspots. If you're going to pay by credit card at any of the following places, then it's wise to be extra cautious.

1. Gas station pumps

You may have heard about thieves installing devices in card readers that copy credit card information during the transaction process. This was originally done with a device called a credit card skimmer, but the updated version is the credit card shimmer, which can copy information from EMV chip credit cards.

Criminals need the right location for this to work, and gas station pumps check all the boxes. They're outdoors, easy to access, and have minimal supervision. That means there's ample opportunity to install and uninstall a device in a gas pump's card reader. Gas station pumps also tend to have a high volume of transactions, generating more card information to potentially steal.

2. Restaurants

Going out for food is fun, but the payment process isn't the most secure. If you pay by card at a typical restaurant, your credit card is out of your possession from the moment the waiter takes it until they bring it back with your receipt. That's more than enough time to snap a picture of all the relevant information when nobody's looking or to run the card through a device that will grab its data.

3. Online retailers

Whenever you use your credit card to make a purchase online, there are several ways the card information could be compromised.

You could have malware on your computer that records your keystrokes or takes screenshots of all your activity. If you aren't connected to a secure network, a cybercriminal could spy on any information you transmit during an online purchase. You may enter your card information on an insecure website.

Even if you do everything right, the retailer you choose could fall victim to a data breach involving its customers' credit card data.

4. Self-service machines

To clarify, self-service machines refer to any machines that process transactions and accept payments without requiring a cashier. Examples include self-checkout terminals at retail stores and payment stations at parking garages.

These are risky for the same reasons as gas station pumps. They get lots of activity, making them juicy targets for thieves who want to steal data from as many cards as possible. And they often aren't that well-supervised, so it's possible to tamper with the card reader on a self-service machine without the owner noticing.

5. Mobile vendors

At street fairs, festivals, and other events, it's becoming increasingly common for vendors to accept credit card payments using portable card readers. This obviously makes paying more convenient, because you don't need to worry about having cash on hand. But it's not always safe.

While most of these mobile vendors are legitimate, there may also be some who use a credit card skimmer/shimmer during the transaction process. For a savvy thief, these kinds of events provide an opportunity to steal credit card information without anyone knowing.

Protecting your credit card information

There's no surefire way to prevent credit card fraud. But knowing where the danger zones are can help because you can be a little more careful when you make payments at one of those locations.

It's also important to keep current contact information on file with your card issuer so that it can report any suspicious transactions to you immediately, and to review your statement every month for fraud. The good news is that even if you're the victim of fraud, most credit cards have a zero-liability policy, so it's likely that you'll get your money back.

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