Unscrupulous individuals are waiting to steal money from the bank accounts of those who aren't careful or don't know better, and it's significantly more challenging to recover funds stolen from a bank account than to get charges reversed from a stolen credit card. While you may still be victimized despite doing everything you reasonably can to protect yourself, it's best to minimize the chances that you'll be targeted by taking measures to protect your checking and savings accounts against fraud and theft.
General Banking Precautions and Safeguards
Follow these basic tips to help protect your accounts:
- Never write your Social Security number or driver's license number on your checks.
This information makes it much easier to steal your identity. If a store employee says they can't accept your check without it, pay using a different method. In fact, why not just use your debit card in the first place? The funds come from the same place. The IRS requires you to write your SSN on your check when submitting a payment, but it also suggests using a more secure payment method, such as paying electronically. (For more tips, see Identity Theft: How To Avoid It.)
- Be skeptical of bank phone calls.
If you receive a phone call from your bank, even if it appears to be legitimate based on your caller ID or the caller’s demeanor, don't provide any personal information over the phone. Instead, politely say you'll call them back, then look up the bank's phone number on your bank statement, on the back of your debit card or on the bank's website and use that number to return the call. You can make sure the original call was legitimate when you call back and address whatever matter the bank was calling about. If the original call turns out to have been fraudulent, you will have put your bank on alert and they can take steps to shut down the scam.
- Don't choose an easy-to-guess number for your ATM PIN.
Don't use PINs that crooks could easily figure out, such as your birthday, a spouse’s birthday or your address. Either choose a random number or choose one that is meaningful to you but not guessable by others. You could also choose a four-letter word or name and base your PIN on the corresponding telephone keypad numbers. Make sure to memorize your PIN, and if memorization isn’t your strength, at least refrain from writing your PIN in a place where it can easily be stolen, like on your ATM card, in a memo on your smartphone or on a scrap of paper that you store in your wallet or purse.
- Shred old bank statements and canceled checks.
You should never just throw away information like bank statements and canceled checks, since they contain your bank account number, name and address. Anyone could rummage through your trash while it sits out on the curb awaiting pickup, and identify thieves often get information this way. The $60 you will spend on a good cross-cut shredder that makes it too much trouble to reassemble a shredded document will be well worth the hassle you’ll save in trying to deal with bank account fraud. Trash thieves will move on to an easier target.
- Safeguard your mail.
If you have to mail something with sensitive financial data in it (which can be something as simple as the check you mail to pay a bill), don't put it in your mailbox for the mailman to pick up. Don’t even put it in a curbside mailbox on a street corner or in a retail center. Take the mail to a post office and drop it in their secure mailbox inside the facility where thieves can’t easily access it. Also, collect your mail promptly after it's delivered to your home each day, and if your work schedule doesn’t allow that, get a locking mailbox or have all your statements and other bank communications delivered electronically to avoid the theft of sensitive financial information from your mailbox. If you sign up for electronic statements, you’ll minimize the banking information that can be stolen from your mailbox. Another option is to get a post office box.
- Look out for card skimmers. (Source: http://www.computerworld.com/article/3184884/financial-it/how-to-protect-yourself-from-atm-crime.html; http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2469560,00.asp; http://www.aba.com/Consumers/Pages/CNC_contips_atm.aspx)
An ATM skimmer is a fake ATM interface that has a card scanner and keypad that appear to be real but which are actually used by criminals to copy the user’s card data and steal the PIN. This stolen information can then be used to create a fake card and clean out the victim’s bank account. More commonly, fake card scanners are used in conjunction with pinhole cameras instead of fake keyboards to record the user entering the card’s PIN, which is why you so often hear that you should use your opposite hand to cover your fingers while entering your PIN. Deep insert skimmers actually go inside the existing card scanning mechanism to steal card data and are used in conjunction with pinhole cameras. ATMs whose security has been compromised may still function properly, leaving you with no clue that anything unusual has occurred.
There are several ways you may be able to spot a skimmer. If anything about the ATM looks broken, loose, scratched or otherwise tampered with, don’t use the machine. If the keypad is especially difficult to use, it may be a keypad overlay. If there are several nearby ATMs but only one is working, the working one may be compromised. Deep insert skimmers and pinhole cameras are virtually undetectable.
If your card has a chip that you can use to access an ATM, using the chip instead of the magnetic stripe is currently more secure, though criminals will undoubtedly figure out a way to steal chip data as chip cards become more popular.
- Practice ATM safety. (Source: http://www.aba.com/Consumers/Pages/CNC_contips_atm.aspx)
In addition to protecting your ATM card from data theft, you also need to protect yourself from harm when visiting an ATM. Be aware of your surroundings and avoid using the ATM if anyone nearby seems suspicious. Approach the ATM with your card already out so you aren’t fumbling in your purse or wallet at the machine. Shield the keypad as you enter your PIN so someone can’t see you enter it, then rob you for your card as you walk away and use that information to steal directly from your account. Be discreet if you’re withdrawing cash and immediately put the money away. Don’t use a poorly lit ATM at night, and if you use a drive-thru ATM from your car, make sure all your doors and windows are locked (except the window you’re using to access the machine, of course).
In the next section, we’ll talk about online and mobile banking precautions and safeguards.
Banking: Online and Mobile Banking Precautions and Safeguards
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