It was flagged as potential fraud, my credit card company texted me right away, and the transaction was spiked.
I knew I wouldn’t be responsible for bogus purchases, but the experience was still a hassle and stressful. And we all pay the price for fraud. The cost on businesses for unauthorized purchases or for falsely flagging legitimate ones makes everything you buy more expensive.
Financial experts told me that it is impossible for Americans to completely prevent unwanted payments. It’s not your fault. Crooks are savvy, and our financial system puts you at risk by being too complicated in some ways and too simplistic in others.
But these six steps can lower your risk of bogus charges or put you in control when fraudsters come for you:
1. Sign up for alerts. They’re a pain. Do it anyway. Financial specialists say vigilance is your best protection. Sign up for notifications by email or phone when your card is used — ideally for every transaction or for purchases like e-commerce orders that skip a physical card swipe.
The notifications don’t prevent bogus purchases, but at least you’ll know something is wrong right away and can take action. (Signing up for notifications isn’t easy. Try looking in the profile or security settings of your card account.)
One risk of these payment notifications is that most of the time, the transactions are legit and you start to tune them out.
Michelle Singletary, the personal finance columnist for The Washington Post, said she made the mistake of setting alerts only for charges on her card above $25. She missed a smaller fraudulent purchase until her card pilferer moved onto bigger buys.
2. Try card locks. Another option for at least some credit and debit cards are controls that let you lock your card from being used if something seems fishy, or to block any purchase above a set dollar amount.
Card controls are clunky to find. Emmett Higdon, the director of digital banking for financial industry consultant Javelin Strategy & Research, said it would be better if card issuers made big S.O.S. buttons on their websites and apps so you can quickly freeze your card if it goes missing or unlock it when you want to buy something.
3. Be careful about payment apps like Zelle. Money-transfer apps like Zelle and Venmo do not have the same protections as payments you make with a credit or debit card. Think of them like paying someone with cash.
Try to use them only with people you know or merchants you trust rather than with strangers who want to buy your TV on Facebook Marketplace, said John Buzzard, Javelin’s lead fraud and security analyst.
Zelle has been a favorite of fraudsters. If you send money by mistake or are tricked, it can be difficult or impossible to get it back. Banks that participate in Zelle reportedly will start to reimburse people who are duped by certain types of scams. Don’t count on it.
Early Warning Services, which operates Zelle, said “more than 99.9 percent of Zelle payments have been sent without any report of fraud or scams.”
4. Beware of tricks designed to play on your fears or desires. If you see a great sale on Instagram or in your email, think twice before clicking on what could be a bogus link that might try to steal your card details. If you get a text that claims it’s an emergency from your bank and is asking you to authorize a payment, be suspicious.
Being paranoid is tiring but it’s also smart defense, said Michael Reitblat and Gunnar Peterson, executives with fraud-prevention firm Forter.
5. Nail the basics. Keep your computer and phone software up to date. Try to create strong passwords on your accounts, and don’t use the same password more than once. (Here is more advice on securing your digital accounts.) Keep tabs on your financial transactions.
This advice is dull, but it works. Peterson said you should imagine the best security not as “James Bond busting through the air vents,” but instead as “brushing your teeth” defense measures.
6. Save your card company’s information to your phone contacts. This is a smart tip from Michelle. This way, if you don’t have your card handy, if it was stolen or if the phone number on the back has faded, you can still call the company quickly if you notice suspicious activity.
My credit card creep’s first move was to charge about $60 at a restaurant. I received an email notification about the transaction, freaked out and scrambled on my account to freeze my card. While I was looking, I got the fraud alert about the whopping Apple order. I have now taken Michelle’s advice.
Also make sure your card issuer has your current contact information, including a phone number, to get in touch in a pinch.
Is it better to pay with a card or something like PayPal or Google Wallet? I heard mixed advice about this. Some financial experts said digital options or credit cards that generate a one-time account number for each purchase are useful protections when you buy online. Others said it doesn’t matter very much.
Also, be aware that you have stronger legal protections from bogus purchases with a credit card compared with a debit card.
My colleague Tatum Hunter recommends an app called Splitwise if you are organizing a vacation with family members or splitting a restaurant check with your friends.
Splitwise lets you easily share expenses — you can create a category for individual expenses like “amusement park tickets” or make a group for the regular monthly expenses among your roommates.
The app keeps reminders of what you owe or are owed, and it nudges your cousin to pay up for the hotel room you shared at the beach.
One downside is that you all have to use the Splitwise app to share expenses. Another is that Splitwise may show you ads based on your groups and payments.
Read more from Tatum: The best payment apps for privacy and low fees
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