Will Apple make breaches obsolete?

download (1)If your credit or debit cards haven’t been compromised, you’re part of a shrinking demographic. Database breaches in recent months have exposed tens of millions of cards to potential fraud.

But Apple’s new payment system has the potential to sidestep the bad guys and someday, perhaps, make breaches a thing of the past, according to LowCards.com’s Bill Hardekopf.

Apple Pay, announced Monday, allows people to pay for stuff with their phones, but your credit and debit card numbers won’t live there. The system generates unique tokens that are used instead. No longer would your sensitive financial information be sent into the ether, to be stored in insecure databases.

You can read more at “Could Apple Pay Be the End of Data Breaches?

Credit card fraud alerts: don’t be too impressed

Dear Liz: My wife and I have had our bank’s airline cards a long time, but we want to change because it’s become almost impossible to cash in the miles. What I don’t see in various card-comparison articles are ratings of the card issuers for customer service and fraud protection. Our bank has been quite good at both, but what about the other issuers?

Answer: People are often unduly impressed when their credit card issuers contact them frequently about possibly fraudulent charges. The issuers are the only ones at risk in these situations, since under “zero liability” policies you can’t be held responsible for bogus charges. Also, if their software were better, they might do a better job of separating legitimate from fraudulent transactions and have to bother you less.

In any case, it’s tough to tell as a customer how good the issuer’s fraud prevention measures are. So perhaps a better metric to use is customer service, and J.D. Power publishes an annual credit card satisfaction study that tries to gauge six factors: interaction; credit card terms; billing and payment; rewards; benefits and services; and problem resolution. American Express has ranked at the top of the survey every year since it started seven years ago. Discover ranked second for 2013 and Chase ranked third.

Protect yourself from holiday credit card fraud

GiftHoliday shopping means more opportunities to whip out your plastic—and more opportunities for thieves to try to steal your identity. Here’s what you should do.

Be vigilant. If you haven’t already, sign up for online access to your bank and credit card accounts. You should be reviewing your transactions at least weekly.

Be reachable. Update your contact information so your issuer can reach you quickly in case they spot fraud.

Be alerted. While you’re at it, sign up for alerts. Most issuers allow you to get a text or email alert for large or overseas transactions.

Beware fraudulent deal sites. Their eye-popping bargains may just be a way to get your credit card numbers. Stick with the real deal, like DealNews.

Be diligent. Install and update anti-malware software.

Be smart. Use your credit card rather than your debit card in high-risk situations, as I wrote in “Debit cards can be riskier than credit cards.” If you must use a debit card, sign for it rather than using your PIN since that typically offers you better protection against fraud.

Debit cards can be riskier than credit cards

Dear Liz: I’m in my early 30s and never carry cash. I charge everything on my debit card. This seems to be a topic of discussion in my office. My co-worker keeps getting his identity stolen and says that using debit cards to pay for everything wreaks havoc on your finances. He says I should use my credit card instead. I just finished paying off all the expenses that creep up when buying a house and really don’t want to start using credit cards again. I don’t think I’d be as good as keeping track of where my money goes when it’s not coming automatically out of my account. But I don’t want to end up losing it all now that identity theft is running rampant. What’s the best solution here?

Answer: What you like most about your debit card — that the charges come directly out of your checking account — is also its greatest flaw. A bad guy who gets access to your account can drain it, and you’re left fighting to get your money back.

Contrast that with fraud on a credit card: You’re not required to pay the disputed charges while the credit card issuer investigates.

That doesn’t mean you should never use a debit card, but you should avoid using it in higher-risk situations. Using a debit card for online purchases isn’t smart, because your computer could be compromised with malware and because merchants often store purchase information in less-than-secure databases.

You also shouldn’t hand your debit card to anyone who could take it out of your sight, such as a waiter at a restaurant, since that person can swipe it through a device called a skimmer to steal the card’s relevant information before handing it back to you. Gas stations and outdoor ATMs can be risky as well, since criminals can more easily install devices to swipe your information than at more protected, better supervised locations.

Even at trusted merchants, though, things can go wrong. Tampered debit card terminals at Michaels craft stores allowed thieves to access customers’ bank accounts.

Using a credit card clearly has advantages, and doesn’t have to be an invitation to debt. Most issuers allow you to set up text and email alerts that let you know when balances exceed limits you set. Apps on your smartphone can help you keep track of charges as well.

Vigilance is the key to limiting the damage caused by identity theft. You should review transactions regularly on all your credit and bank accounts, regardless of what method you choose to pay.

Finally, keep in mind that debit cards do nothing to improve your credit scores, since debit cards are not attached to credit accounts. Light but regular use of credit cards can help achieve good scores, which in turn will save you money on mortgages, auto loans, utility deposits and, in most states, insurance premiums. You don’t need to carry a balance to have good scores, so exercising a little discipline in tracking your balances and paying them in full each month can save you money.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

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Save Money on Summer Travel by Avoiding ATM Fees
How not to waste your souvenir money on ATM fees.

9 Things to Do When Your Email is Hacked
Panicking is not one of them.

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Do Women Over 50 Need Life Insurance?
The pros and cons of purchasing a policy after 50.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

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7 Key Money Lessons for 20-Somethings
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Raising Baby: Just How Much Does it Cost?
So very cute and so very expensive.

Same-Sex Couples Face New Financial-Future – and Opportunities
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When Informed Shopping is Dumb Shopping
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How Credit Card Companies Spot Fraud Before You Do
Credit card companies are tracking your spending patterns in order to prevent fraud.

Our credit cards worked in Europe. Mostly.

We just returned from 10 days in Italy, with a plane change in Zurich. After writing about the troubles some U.S. travelers faced using their credit cards overseas, I’m happy to report that we were able to use ours in most places with no problem at all.

Of course, we visited tourist-centric locales (Venice and Florence) where the merchants are used to seeing our old-fashioned magnetic stripe credit cards. Our U.S.-style cards are less secure than the “chip and PIN” model embraced by other countries, but restaurant staffs and shop clerks accepted them without a fuss.

There were a few exceptions:

  • We were out of luck when it came to the automated kiosks at most vaporetto (water bus) stops. As I wrote in my column, such kiosks require the more secure cards. We brought our British Airways card, which is a “chip and signature card,” but that proved useless. Without a PIN, the card wouldn’t work at automated kiosks. (U.S. debit cards wouldn’t work, either.)
  • A few merchants insisted on cash. I ended up withdrawing more money than I expected from ATMs, and ran into a glitch there—turns out the 250 euros I kept trying to withdraw equaled more than my daily limit. Once I got the currency math right, I was able to get cash when I needed it at a decent exchange rate—which was somewhat offset by the $5-a-pop transaction fee.
  • The bad guys in Europe were quick to exploit our less-secure technology. Two days after we returned, somebody used our Capital One card to make three fraudulent charges of $442.58 each in the Netherlands. Fortunately, users aren’t responsible for fraud on their credit cards. For exactly that reason, I wouldn’t use our less-secure debit cards anywhere but an ATM attached to a bank branch. I don’t want to give the scamsters access to my bank account.

For our next trip, I might arrange to get a true chip-and-PIN card, like the one Diners Club now offers its members. Another option is the prepaid Cash Passport card. Or maybe, by then, U.S. issuers will get with the program and make true chip-and-PIN cards available here. I can dream, can’t I?