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How Can Someone Steal Your Credit Card While It’s Still in Your Wallet?

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Ever wonder how your credit card could have been used to buy cellphones in Cleveland when you just swiped it at your grocery store an hour ago?

Credit card fraud generally comes in two forms: in-store fraud and card-not-present fraud. In the first situation, a thief has your credit card in her hand and uses it at a payment terminal just as you would. In the other scenario, a thief may or may not have a physical card, because all he needs to make an online or over-the-phone transaction is your card number, expiration date and security code (sometimes, he might need your name and billing ZIP code, too).

You’d think you could prevent in-store credit card fraud pretty easily — keep track of the card, and if you happen to misplace it (or your wallet goes missing), cancel it so no one can use it. That’s not always how it works, though. People who steal electronic credit card data or buy stolen data off the black market can manufacture fake cards and get away with in-store fraud. If your card is in your wallet and you receive a notification from your credit card company saying your card has been fraudulently used in a store, restaurant or other bricks-and-mortar location, that’s probably what happened.

How Thieves Steal Credit Cards

If, like most U.S. consumers, you have magnetic stripe credit cards, no one is going to be able to skim your credit card data merely by getting close to you. There’s the possibility you used a gas pump or ATM that has been tampered with, or a server at a restaurant you visited copied your credit card information when she took it away from your table, but it’s more likely your card will be compromised in one of those massive data breaches you’ve been reading about recently.

With other payment technology, there’s a chance someone can skim your card if they’re close enough to your wallet. Payment methods enabled with near-field communication (NFC) or RFID work with payment terminals outfitted with proximity readers, meaning these cards have the ability to communicate with devices without touching them. Still, there are often measures in place to secure contactless payment, and a skimming device would have to be very close to the card to strip it of its data.

Safeguarding Your Money

With all the capabilities credit card thieves have, it’s unrealistic to expect you can prevent theft. You’ll want to take proper precautions, like using secure payment websites, never storing payment information in your Web browser and only enabling NFC or RFID payment at the moment of a transaction, but beyond that, you have to watch out for signs of credit card fraud.

Check your account activity daily or set up transactional monitoring with your bank or credit card issuer. You’ll also want to check your credit scores for sudden changes — it could be a sign someone ran up your credit card balance without your permission — and review your free annual credit reports for other kinds of fraud that can be trickier to detect, like identity theft. To get updates on your credit standing, you can see two of your free credit scores every 30 days on Credit.com.

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