If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, imitation of your credit cards must be the sincerest form of identity theft.
For years, identity thieves have produced copies of credit cards (otherwise called card cloning) by stealing the information stored on a card's magnetic stripe and transferring it onto fake cards for their own use. Magnetic stripe cards carry and transmit the same card information with each purchase.
Thieves often gather this information by installing skimmers or shimmers on card readers. Generally speaking, skimmers are overlays that fit on top of card reader slots to gather magnetic stripe information, while shimmers are installed inside reader slots and are designed to record information from EMV cards (commonly called chip cards).
You probably already have an EMV card. Most card issuers switched to EMV cards to prevent fraud by eliminating the magnetic stripe entirely. Chip cards generate random codes to verify individual transactions, so any stolen information is useless for future transactions.
Unfortunately, U.S. merchants haven't fully converted to EMV readers, so EMV cards still carry the magnetic stripe to stay compatible with older readers – bypassing the EMV card protections. Thieves can't clone the chip on your card, but they can pick up enough data to make a fake magnetic stripe version of your card.
How do you prevent your credit card from being cloned? Start by looking for any suspicious signs of a skimmer on the reader – loose readers, thick overlays on the keypad, or features that don't aesthetically match the rest of the reader.
Shimmers are undetectable, as identity thieves install them inside the reader. Reduce your odds by sticking with newer gas pumps that are more likely to be tamper-proof. The newer styles generally have horizontal card readers and raised metal keypads (think payphone, if you're old enough to remember one).
For gas purchases, consider paying inside when it's feasible. Indoor readers are less likely to be unattended long enough for thieves to install skimmers or shimmers.
When possible, avoid card readers entirely by using near-field communication (NFC) payment methods like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, or Android Pay. These methods communicate without full physical contact and generate random codes to process transactions similarly to chip readers, preventing your actual card number from being exposed at the point of sale.
If all else fails, consider paying with cash. Those funny green paper rectangles still work at checkout counters, and you won't have to worry about cloning. (Cash can be cloned, too – it's called counterfeiting – but that's not your problem.)
Magnetic stripe information theft can occur outside of a card reader, if your card leaves your sight for several minutes. Think of a waiter or sales clerk who takes your card away and returns with your card and a receipt to sign. They could scan your information through a separate device for future use. Keep your card in sight whenever possible.
Cloning prevention methods aren't foolproof, and identity thieves have other ways to cause you financial harm. If identity thieves have your card information, they don't have to swipe your card at all – they can simply make fraudulent purchases online. That's why it's important to check your accounts regularly for any fraudulent charges and monitor your credit reports for sham accounts or other signs of identity theft. You can check your credit score and read your credit report for free within minutes by joining MoneyTips.
If you're too busy, activate all the alerts and protections that your cards offer – and consider a credit monitoring service as an extra layer of protection. Be proactive to reduce the risk of cloned cards and keep damage to a minimum.
Protect your credit – protect your identity – protect yourself with a free MoneyTips trial.