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Guarding against credit card fraud
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Credit card information theft is a huge problem for American consumers, with much of the related criminal activity arising out of people having their "identities" stolen. Criminals obtain credit card information by hacking company computers, by stealing victims' mail and by "shoulder surfing" (people peering over your shoulder to see our credit card information while standing in line at a retail outlet). Criminals also use "phishing" as a way to obtain your information. According to Wikipedia, "In the field of computer security, phishing is the criminally fraudulent process of attempting to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication."

In addition to the more obvious forms of credit card information theft, there are warnings circulating on the Internet about yet another way criminals can get your information. This involves thieves with credit card readers who, by standing in close proximity to the victim, can obtain the pertinent information without touching or seeing the credit card(s). While this kind of information stealing is indeed possible, it is not that practical for criminals. I view it as more of an interesting tidbit of information that shows just how creative criminals can be. If only these same people would put their creativity to positive and productive uses - I suspect they could be very successful individuals!

Another warning that has been making the rounds on the Internet is that thieves have perfected a way to clone your car's remote control codes, thus allowing them to enter your car to steal things or take the vehicle itself. The idea is that the criminal, who has the required equipment, watches as people leave and lock their cars with their remote control devices. The criminal can then capture that signal and recreate it to allow them easy access to the car. Such cloning is possible, but it requires very sophisticated decoding equipment, the process is time-consuming and the equipment is hard to come by. Since the cloning technique is so cumbersome, it is more likely to be used on very expensive cars. The more "routine" auto thefts or auto burglaries will continue to be perpetrated as they always have been, without the use of sophisticated techniques or equipment. Most car thieves prefer breaking windows or using special keys to gain entry, and once in, they use a variety of quick and easy techniques to start the vehicle.

I am really making two points by writing this column. The first is that anyone who has credit cards or cars is a potential theft victim. Short of owning neither, there is no surefire way to guard from ever becoming a victim. All security features are devised by humans, and can therefore be defeated by humans through persistence and creativity. As each new security system is devised, criminals are usually only a few months behind in figuring out how to overcome them. While the victims are hard at work, criminals are sitting in jails, prisons or at home thinking of ways to gain as much wealth with the least amount of effort, with no care about what their actions are causing the victims. This means that credit card holders and car owners must do what they can to reasonably protect their assets.

Insofar as credit cards are concerned, keep them in a safe place, watch for the "shoulder surfers," make sure your incoming and outgoing mail is safe and do not provide credit card information via email inquiries from any source (even if it looks legitimate). Keep a separate list of credit cards and issuer phone numbers in the event that credit cards are lost or stolen. It is also a good idea to purchase (through your bank or a credit card company) Identity Theft Protection, which usually ranges between $7 and $10 monthly; it could be a wise investment.

The vast majority of crimes are ones of opportunity. In other words, criminals are going to target people and things they see as being the easiest to victimize. So, awareness and prevention efforts are key. There is no need to be paranoid; just plan ahead, take steps to safeguard your credit cards and vehicles, and chances are you will not become a victim.

I wish you all a wonderful and safe Christmas!