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Jason Alderman

Jason Alderman

Make Sure You Are Cyber Secure

Posted: 12/15/10 11:28 AM ET

When Ben Franklin famously wrote, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," I'm pretty sure he wasn't warning his readers about the perils of cyber crime. But in today's world of phishing, shoulder-surfing and computer spyware, his advice hits home.

It's a sad reality that some people will rip you off if you give them an opportunity. Just as you take safety precautions when handling cash, so should you be vigilant when using credit or debit payment cards for purchases, whether the transaction is in person or online.

Here are tips for protecting your account information and avoiding payment card scams:

Prevent online intrusions. Make sure your anti-virus and anti-spyware software is current, only download information from trusted sites and don't click pop-up windows or suspicious links in emails, even from people you know. These can all be tricks to install spyware, which can record your keystrokes to obtain account or other confidential information from your computer.

Use secure websites. When purchasing items online, look for safety symbols such as the padlock icon in the browser's status bar, an "s" after "http" in the URL, or the words "Secure Sockets Layer" (SSL) or "Transport Layer Security" (TLS). These are signs that the merchant is using a secure page for transmitting personal information.

Protect personal information. Never provide sensitive information, such as credit card or bank account numbers, passwords, Social Security number, driver's license, address/phone or birth date by mail, phone or email unless you initiated the communication. Report requests for personal information to your card issuer by calling the number on the back of your card.

Be wary of "free trial" offers. Take time to read and understand all terms and conditions. Pay particular attention to any pre-checked boxes in online offers before submitting payment card information for an order. Failing to un-check the boxes may bind you to terms and conditions you don't want.

Track account activity. Regularly review credit card and bank account statements and report any suspicious or unauthorized charges to the financial institution or retailer that issued the card. Ask whether your credit or debit card offers "zero liability," which means you won't be responsible for unauthorized or fraudulent purchases.

Monitor your credit. Regularly order your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion for errors or fraudulent activity, such as purchases you didn't make, or new accounts or loans you didn't open. The bureaus don't always list the same accounts, so to be safe, order credit reports from each. You can order one free credit report annually from each through AnnualCreditReport.com or more frequently for a small fee from each bureau.

Transaction alerts. Sign up for email or text message transaction alerts from your bank to keep track of purchases. These alerts are triggered when the transaction meets certain criteria you select; for example, purchases over a certain dollar amount. In addition, banks generally will contact you if they spot unusual activity, such as multiple large purchases made within a short time frame or from different geographic areas.

Travel precautions. If you're planning to travel, let your card issuers know where you're going and for how long. While you're at it, make a list of their toll-free fraud hotlines in case of theft and carry it separately from your wallet. I also program these phone numbers into my cell phone for quick access.

Computer safeguards. Whenever logging onto the Internet on your laptop at a WiFi hotspot, hotel business center or other public facility whose server may not be encrypted, be extra cautious before doing online banking or other password-protected services.

A few other quick tips:

  • Create strong, randomly patterned passwords and change them regularly.

  • Shield keypads from the eyes of "shoulder surfers" at stores and ATMs.

  • Review receipts for accuracy before signing and retain them for your records.

  • Shred paperwork and receipts containing personal or account information once they're no longer needed.

  • Lock up documents with sensitive information at home and work.

There are many great resources where you can learn how to protect your personal and account information and prevent fraud, including:

  • StaySafeOnline.org, a website filled with tips for safe Internet use, created by the National Cyber Security Alliance.

  • The FBI's Be Crime Smart page, which highlights the latest scams and tells you how to report crime and fraud.

  • My employer, Visa Inc., offers VisaSecuritySense.com, which contains tips on preventing fraud online, when traveling, at retail establishments and ATMs, deceptive marketing practices, and more.

  • The Federal Trade Commission's ID Theft, Privacy and Security page, which contains extensive information about identity theft, privacy and information security.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/PracticalMoney