Keeping Your Hands Clean in an Age of Dirty Digits

21st Century Mugging

I get a lot of questions about security and the PC. Understandable since you can hardly turn on the news without hearing about some millions of credit card numbers being stolen. Let me just say that the digital age has made it easier than ever to transact business and make purchases across thousands of miles in the blink of an eye. And in that same blink, a hacker can snag thousands of credit card numbers or other personal information. It’s digital mugging for the new millennium.

You Are Not the Weakest Link (Usually)

Unless you’re one of those people who just leaves their debit or credit card lying about town, or who posts their social security number to Facebook, you, personally, are probably not the responsible for the latest breach of security. For those looking to fashion themselves a new debit card, it is a waste of time to go after a single person. So, chances are someone is not trying to hack your computer to get your passwords. However, keep reading and see below. Today’s hackers are much more ambitious. They don’t want just one person’s info, they want a horde of people’s info. So, they target credit & debit card processing centers or banks themselves. Every time you swipe your card at the grocery or the gas pump, your info passes through several different hands, all of whom are vulnerable to attack.

Get Out Your Pepper Spray

So what to do? Things are not as dire and hopeless as the media makes them out to be (are they ever?), but you can take some precautions on your end. First, don’t plug your credit card number all over the Internet – do your online shopping only through places you trust. And if a site only accepts payments by Western Union, STAY AWAY! You wire money to your stranded kid using Western Union, you don’t buy him a new MacBook with it. It doesn’t matter how good the deal is, because there probably is no deal other than you funding someone’s nice vacation in exchange for an empty box of used pinball machine parts. Don’t use Western Union for purchases! When you do shop online at those reputable places, always use a strong password for your account.

It used to be that people would get a bank statement once a month and they would go through it and reconcile it to their checkbook. With the advent of online banking and the debit card, a monthly paper statement and checkbook are the last vestiges of a by-gone era. Online banking has made keeping up with your finances so much easier! Use it – often. I was on my way to the store one time and checked my bank balance on my phone only to see I had far less money in there than I thought (and no, it wasn’t because of frivolous spending). There were charges using my debit card, which had never left my possession, from places I had never been. I called the bank right away, filed a claim, got a new card and got my money back. It pays to check your account online. Something to look for on your statement are pre-authorizations – gas stations do this frequently; they will authorize a small amount on the card to make sure funds are available, then charge the full amount later. Unscrupulous people with a fake debit/credit card will often get gas first to make sure the card is still active or they may make other small purchases before moving on to the big ticket items. If you catch it early, you can stop them before they get very far.

Along this same line are credit monitoring programs. There are a host of them out there, so do a little research to find the one you like best. These programs go beyond just bank account information – they monitor your credit and watch for signs of identity theft. For those truly ambitious criminals looking to impersonate someone else, these services are like barbed wire – they may not prevent the crime, but they’ll make sure the attacker leaves a bloody trail to follow.

If you haven’t gotten the message by now that antivirus software is important, let me reiterate: have good antivirus software and keep it updated regularly!!! Many antivirus programs come with features to stop an attacker from gaining your personal information from compromised websites. Those are great tools and something I would look for in a program. They often fall under the heading of “phishing filters” or “safe site” programs.

Secure Your Borders

You may not be able to control what happens to your information after you swipe your credit or debit card, but you can certainly be proactive on your end to minimize risk and stop fraudulent activity. Do everything that you can and be as proactive as possible and you will greatly reduce the risk of being a victim.


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