I was not affected by the Target data theft for one reason: I use cash as much as possible. On my last trip to Target, I toyed with signing up for a debit card for the 5% discount, but I was in a hurry and didn’t want to deal with the application process.
It looks as if I dodged a bullet. If you’re a Target cardholder, the Target corporate site has good information about what happened and what you can do about it. In addition, the company has offered to pay for a year of credit monitoring for its customers. To receive it, go to creditmonitoring.target.com and register before April 23, 2014. You will then receive an activation code that must be redeemed by April 30, 2014. Make time for this. You don’t want to miss the sign-up window.
There are two potential frauds from this breach. The first is that someone will use your information to make phony charges to your account. The second is that scammers will use the Target breach as a pretext for other scams, say by sending emails or placing phone calls requesting personal information under the guise of helping you but with the real goal of taking your money.
Finally, remember that the we all know about the Target problem because it’s so extensive. However, financial data is stolen all the time from retailers large and small.
Check your statements
Whether or not you’re a Target customer, get into the habit of checking your credit and debit card transactions. A common trick is to put through a very low charge, also known as a microcharge, with a vague title. The scammer is betting that you take a look at it and figure it’s a charge for a song that you downloaded or decide that it is too small to deal with. Even better, you might not even check your statement because the total is close to what you expected. If you are expecting a bill of about $150 because you used your card at a restaurant and to buy a new outfit, and you receive a bill of about $150, you may pay it without realizing that there is an extra $1.37 beyond the dinner and the dress.
If you ignore the charge, it will continue next month, and it may be slightly higher. The initial charge is the result of someone trying lots of random numbers to see which ones are valid. The charges in later months happen because the thief knows it is a good number and that the cardholder isn’t being vigilant. Some of these scams run for years.
I’ve been a victim. Every few years, one of these charges comes through on my cards. When it does, I call the bank, they reverse the charge and they send out a new card. It’s a hassle, but it’s a reality of modern life. It sounds like a bad online ad, but this one weird trick can save you money and make life difficult for the bad guys.
Just use cash
I like to think that I am less likely to be a victim because I prefer to use cash. It keeps me mindful of spending, and it makes me look a little dangerous in an increasingly electronic world. I have a credit card that I use for online shopping, travel, automatic billing and the occasional situation where I underestimate how much cash I’ll need for something. I pay it off in full every month, and there’s only one bill to track.
The Target debacle is a good reminder that the discounts aren’t free. Don’t open a store card unless you will use it enough to offset the risks of a data breach – and then don’t forget to pay the card bill on time.