Color of Money: Protect yourself from debit card crooks

Michelle Singletary on

WASHINGTON -- Our financial lives have become a series of debit card swipes.

We swipe for groceries. We swipe for gas.

We tap our toes with impatience if we find ourselves behind someone using something so seemingly outdated as cash or a check.

Why bother with paper when access to all your money for just about any purchase is accessible within seconds on a small plastic card?

But the card you rely on to conduct your business has a vulnerability that thieves have become masters at exploiting.

During a financial workshop I conducted at my church, several people talked about their recent experiences of having money stolen from their accounts because of a debit card breach. One person lost $700. And we all gasped when one woman said $3,500 was drained from her account, including her rent money. Eventually the banks, as often is the case, returned the stolen funds. But can you afford that kind of hit, even if it's temporary?

Over the last several years, the percentage of debit cards that have been compromised has increased dramatically, according to FICO, the company that created the credit-scoring model most used by banks to determine borrowers' creditworthiness.

There was a 26 percent jump from 2015 to 2016 in the number of locations or businesses where debit cards were compromised, FICO's Card Alert Service reported. And those breaches meant that hundreds of thousands of consumers needed new cards.

It has become relatively easy for criminals to steal debit card data. Crooks place cameras and/or skimming devices over the keypads at ATMs or at gas pumps to capture card numbers and PINS and then load the information onto a plastic card they can use to tap into your bank account.

Contributing to the rise in debit card compromises is the improvement of skimming technology, said Michael Betron, senior director of product management for FICO.


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