Risk Management

How To Keep Your Accounts Safe When Traveling

Dear Debit Card Thief...

Perhaps you “skimmed” my number from the gas station pump that I hurriedly used on my way to the airport. Or maybe it was the U.S. Post Office kiosk where I recently bought some stamps. Either way, you’re clearly adept at installing a seamless-looking skimmer — I’ll give you that. And I wasn’t vigilant enough to realize I was either typing my PIN number into a fake keypad (that covered the real one beneath) or that a tiny camera nearby recorded my credit card number and keystrokes.

However, you don’t show much discrimination when it comes to your clientele. If I was going to go on a one-day, $1362 spending spree with someone else’s money, I might buy hardwood flooring or dental work — things I actually need. Instead, the classy California resident to whom you sold my number blew my hard-earned cash as follows: $432.35 on liquor, $61.01 on DVDs, and $520 on a meal at a pub-slash-casino that serves French Dip. French Dip! I wonder if the $96.26 they dropped at Chevron involved some sort of tobacco product — but that may be unfairly speculative.

Perhaps you, the skimmer, were also involved during the infamous Target fraud, when my debit card number enabled someone in India to purchase $1000 of clothes. I should’ve learned my lesson then, but old habits die hard — and I’ve joined the ranks of 12 million Americans who are a victim of some type of identity fraud each year. But super-stealthy thief, you’ve given me a gift of sorts: the chance to wise up about credit and debit card use when traveling —which is often — or anywhere, really. From now on, these are my solemn vows:

• I’ll use my debit card more sparingly, but never again at a gas station pump — where skimmers are easily installed by thieves such as you. And if I do need to use a machine with a card reader — such as a Post Office kiosk, train station ticket machine, or ATM — I’ll take a careful look at the device before inserting my card. (This is what an ATM skimmer looks like — but you already know that).

• When I do use an ATM, I’ll obscure my typing hand so that hidden cameras can’t record my keystrokes.

• I’ll get my card back quickly at cash registers, because some clerks (or devices) may skim or take pictures of the number. That also means that my credit card should not be held behind the bar, either, or even left sitting on the bar (where someone might snap a quick picture). Paying by credit card at restaurants is getting riskier — but I’ll try and keep tabs on where my card travels when I settle up. (I’ll toast the day when U.S. eateries migrate to the hand-held credit card machines used in Canada, Europe and elsewhere).

–I’ll check my account details every day, because if I report the theft within two business days, I’m only liable for $50 of the loss. The bank representative who helped me file a dispute told me there has been an “intense” spike in debit card fraud since January — so it’s vital to keep on top of statements.

A friend of mine who works as a postal clerk in California says that part of her job is to check the lobby kiosk every day for skimmers. How depressing is that? With extra vigilance on both of our parts, though, hopefully we’ll eventually put people like you out of business — and you can find a more constructive use for your technical know-how.

Until then,


Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is a writer who specializes in food and drink.