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Credit card vulnerability awareness rises

By JOSHUA QUALLS

The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Americans now are able to get their money back pretty easily if their credit card is skimmed thanks to federal policy, but experts say many neither know that nor how to secure themselves from the risks.

Over the past several years, financial services like Visa and Mastercard have begun transitioning from making cards with magnetic strips to ones with smart chips, which are more secure, and most of the cards that have since been made contain both as a way to facilitate the transition.

The 2015 U.S. Fraud Liability Shifts gave merchants more incentive to adopt smart chips, because businesses could suddenly be held liable if consumers were defrauded after using the magnetic strip on cards that have both. But the adoption of smart chips doesn’t mean skimmers will give up anytime soon, so consumers could benefit from a dose of awareness and protect themselves by learning about the old and new technology that helps them make purchases.

“We’re never going to completely get rid of vulnerabilities,” said Joshua Brunty, assistant professor of digital forensics and information assurance at Marshall University.

“When people do that, I think we’ll see less skimming incidents occur.”

Consumers are especially vulnerable at gas pumps, where they soon will be filling up for road trips to visit family over the holiday season.

Skimming devices often are hidden inside gas pumps or secretly affixed to keypads and credit card readers, and they can capture names, credit card numbers and Social Security numbers embedded into magnetic strips.

“Europe went through this years ago,” Brunty said. “They basically had the same systemic problem and solved that problem by regulating the requirement for merchants to use (smart) chips by a certain date.”

Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia’s attorney general, told The Herald-Dispatch his office is “tirelessly working to spread awareness and educate West Virginians about this ongoing threat.”

To that end, he and Traci Nelson, executive director of the West Virginia Oil & Marketers Association, released a list of guidelines in August to help gas stations prevent skimming at the pump.

Brunty is a former digital forensics examiner at Marshall’s Forensic Science Center, which works in conjunction with the West Virginia State Police’s digital forensics unit. He said West Virginia and the surrounding region culturally can be slow to adopt new technology like smart cards, so residents likewise can be particularly vulnerable.

For example, the West Virginia State Police arrested four Floridians in Huntington in October after they allegedly skimmed two men’s credit cards in Morgantown. Police also connected at least one of the arrested women to a similar operation in nearby Lexington, Kentucky.

“As this type of theft continues to grow in popularity, the skimming devices are becoming increasingly difficult to detect due to advancements in technology,” Morrisey said. “This means consumers must remain vigilant, exercise caution and practice our advice to reduce their likelihood of becoming a victim.”

Consumers can feel safer by paying with their credit cards inside instead of at the pump, and they mostly can protect themselves by looking for signs of credit-card skimming devices, like torn security labels or stations with no security cameras.

As far as card technologies go, Brunty said newer “contactless” payment technologies like Apple Pay and Google Wallet generally are more secure than a physical credit card. Older technologies, like contactless cards with radio-frequency identification (RFID), still are vulnerable to skimmers, but special wallets are made to block skimming signals for those who have them.

Cards with smart chips may be less convenient for consumers because they take longer to process, but Brunty said they are a step in the right direction when it comes to personal security.

The U.S. Fraud Liability Shifts attempted to make merchants more secure, but some businesses might not update their technology unless mandated if they perceive consumers either don’t know or don’t care.

“There’s a lot of regulations out there, but I don’t think that we’ve held businesses to that level of accountability just yet,” Brunty said. “There’s no regulated system in place that forces businesses to make that transition, and unfortunately (security) is being put on the brunt of the general public.”

Those who believe their credit cards might have been skimmed should call the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division at 800-368-8808 or visit the office online at www.wvago.gov.

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