5 Ways Cops, Crooks Say Your Money's At Risk

May 10, 2011

It takes a thief: Consumer Reports recently interviewed law-enforcement experts and former criminals to find the activities that make consumers the most vulnerable to becoming victims of financial fraud. Here are their Top 5.

If you’ve seen the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “Catch Me If You Can,” you know that law-enforcement officials sometimes turn to criminals for insights about their crimes — with the aim of preventing similar crimes in the future.

Consumer Reports magazine took the same tack in its July issue, talking to police, criminal experts, and former criminals to get their opinion on the best way for consumers to protect themselves from financial fraud. The magazine says consumers are most vulnerable to become victims of financial fraud in these five ways:

Banking from a Public Computer. Using a public computer to bank is inherently dangerous. “Keylogging malware that can capture account numbers, passwords, and other vital data is a risk that has been linked to use of open Wi-Fi connections and public computers such as those in hotel lobbies,” Consumer Reports says. Even using your own computer at work can put your accounts in jeopardy if they’re accessible to other workers and you store your financial account information on the computer.

Bottom line, don’t use public computers to access any of your financial accounts. If it’s essential for you to bank, use your phone to locate a nearby branch ATM. Speaking of which …

Using Unfamiliar ATMs. Criminals have been known to install “skimming” devices and tiny cameras on ATMs — particularly in free-standing ATMs located in places such as gasoline stations, convenience stores, hotel lobbies, and conference centers -- that can read your card data and PIN code. (That’s not to say your in-house branch ATM is totally secure, but bank branches are under heavier surveillance and criminals tend to stick with easier targets.)

Whenever possible, use your local bank branch ATMs -- you’ll save money on non-network ATM fees this way, too. If you see an ATM that has some form of device covering the card slot, or any type of mirror, brochure holder or other device that just doesn’t look right, bank somewhere else. Whether you’re using a familiar AMT or one that used before, always put your hand over the keypad as you type in your PIN. (This will also guard against “shoulder surfing,” where thieves simply look over your shoulder and make note of your account and PIN information.)

Consumer Reports recommends keeping your PIN code and ATM or debit card separate, as well. Surprisingly, almost 1 in 10 people carry their code with the card, according to the magazine.

Not Monitoring Credit-Card or Debit-Card Statements. The best way to protect yourself from loss due to ATM fraud is to check your bank and credit-card statements at least once a month (once a week is better if you check statements online).

Consumer Reports says your financial institution also has services to help you monitor suspicious activity in your accounts. “Use services offered by your bank or card issuer that can help protect you, such as an e-mail or text alert if a transaction occurs for more than a certain amount,” according to the magazine.

Tossing Receipts. No one likes to stuff their wallets with bits of paper, but too often those little slips that are haphazardly thrown away in public trash cans are harvested by criminals. Consumer Reports counsels: “Don't toss away receipts in the ATM lobby or leave them at the gas pump. Hold on to them until your transactions have cleared your bank account to make sure the totals match. Then shred the receipts if they have any information a thief might use.”

Filing Bills in the Circular File. Though people often think of identity theft and financial fraud as high-tech crimes, the truth is that many criminals still opt for low-tech methods such as “dumpster diving” -- pawing through your garbage in search of financial or government documents containing identifiable information such as bank account or Social Security numbers.

Invest in a good-quality cross-cut shredder -- fair warning, inexpensive models are prone to jams, so go online and check out reviews for higher-end models. This time of year, many organizations also hold “Shredding Day” events, where consumers can bring personal documents to be shredded for free. (Call your local bank branch and ask if it will shred your bank documents for you at no cost.) Another benefit, the shredded paper is typically recycled, so you’re doing your part for the environment as well.