How Credit Cards Work

Credit Card Safety

­­Although the numbers are increasing, consumers are still not using their credit cards on the Internet nearly as much as e-tailers (electronic retailers) would like. That's why many cyber-merchants continue to offer a toll-free order number so that shoppers have the choice of calling their order in. Cyber-shopping may be convenient -- and some people do all of their shopping online -- but credit-card fraud is always a threat, both on the Internet and out in the real world. Hackers have found ways to steal credit-card numbers from Web sites.

To illustrate the importance of tight security, a network TV reporter, tipped off about loose security on an Internet Web-hosting site, was able to gain access to about 1,500 customer records, which included everything from credit-card numbers and payment records to comments about particular customers.


These are the kinds of stories that deflate consumer confidence. Some e-tailers blame consumer reluctance on the inability in cyberspace to make the kind of personal contact that a shopper gets when he looks into the eyes of a store merchant. Experts say that this kind of comfort level will be boosted when online payment methods and security measures are standardized -- much as they are in the retail and mail-order industries.

While Internet companies have taken responsibility for security breaches and resulting losses to credit-card users, there remains the growing problem of identity thieves who use stolen credit cards to make purchases on the Internet. And while unfair or fraudulent practices by credit-card companies are not commonplace, they do happen. The good news is that consumers are protected by law -- in case of credit-card fraud online or off, you are only liable for a maximum of $50 of the amount stolen.

And fortunately, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the media are watching closely. In 1994, the FTC ordered TransUnion credit-reporting bureau to stop selling "sensitive" consumer data -- data on 160 million Americans -- to junk-mail producers. The FTC charged that TransUnion violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by selling consumer information to target marketers who lack any of the allowable purposes listed under the act. TransUnion denies that it sold information that could affect customers' appealed the FTC's ruling, but lost.

If the mailing-list issue bothers you -- and it bothers most of us -- pay attention when you're completing that credit-card application. Some application forms now provide a box that you can check to allow or disallow the selling of your information to mailing lists. You can also protect yourself by taking your name off the credit bureaus' mailing lists.

One way to do this is to visit The Consumer Credit Reporting Industry Opt-Out Prescreen Web site. On this site you can fill out a form and opt-out of recieving pre-approved credit or insurance offers in the mail. You can also call 888-5-OPT-OUT (888-567-8688). Alternatively, you can write to the major credit card bureaus and request that your named be removed from their mailing lists.

When you write to these companies, include your complete name, name variations and mailing address, Social Security number and signature and state clearly that you want your name removed from their mailing lists. You can write any of these major reporting bure aus and they will contact the other major bureaus with your request:

  • Experian Consumer Opt Out, 701 Experian Parkway, Allen, Texas, 75013
  • Equifax Inc. Options, P.O. Box 740123, Atlanta, Georgia, 30374-0123
  • Trans Union Marketing List Opt Out, P.O. Box 97328, Jackson, MS 39288-7328

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) tracks consumers who prefer not to receive solicitations by mail or phone. Check their Consumer Assistance site for more information. There are a lot of simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your credit card -- starting with making sure you sign it as soon as it arrives in the mail.

These tips are important and universal:

  • Sign your card -- as soon as you receive it! (Obviously, this is only as effective as the clerk who's checking it.)
  • When you use your card at an ATM, enter your PIN in such a way that no one can easily memorize your keystrokes.
  • Don't leave your receipt behind at the ATM. Your PIN and account number from a discarded receipt could make you vulnerable to credit-card fraud. Also, don't throw out your credit-card statement, receipts or carbons without first shredding them!
  • Never give your credit-card number over the telephone unless you initiated the call. Even when you place the call to a legitimate merchant (such as a mail-order company), never give your card number out over a cordless phone. Radio scanners that eavesdrop on these conversations are available for a few hundred dollars at any electronics store, and your voice can be received by one from a far greater distance than the maximum useful range of your cordless phone. One common scam is when someone calls you "back" right after you place an order, claims to be from the merchant and tells you that there was a problem with your card number -- would you mind giving it to them again? The best thing to do is ask for a contact name and call the merchant back at the number you used originally.
  • Ignore any credit-card offer that requires you to spend money up-front or fails to disclose the identity of the card issuer.
  • Make certain you get your card back after you make a purchase (one habit to observe is to leave your wallet open in your hand until you have the card back). Also, make sure that you personally rip up any voided or cancelled sales slips.
  • Always keep a list of your credit cards, credit-card numbers and toll-free numbers in case your card is stolen or lost.
  • Check your monthly statement to make certain all charges are your own, and immediately notify the card issuer of any errors or unauthorized charges. (More on this later!)

Now, you get a credit-card application and there's all this small print. Want to know what it's really saying?