Data breaches at retailers aren't going away but there are ways consumers can protect themselves from future heists of their payment card information.
Home Depot said Thursday that malicious software lurking in its check-out terminals between April and September affected 56 million debit and credit cards that customers swiped at its stores. Target, Michaels and Neiman Marcus have also been attacked by hackers in the past year.
More breaches are likely. The Department of Homeland Security warned last month that more than 1,000 retailers could have malware in their cash-register computers.
Here are five ways to protect yourself:
1. CONSIDER ANOTHER WAY TO PAY
Try newer ways to pay, such as PayPal or Apple Pay. "Any technology that avoids you having your credit card in your hand in a store is safer," says Craig Young, security researcher for software maker Tripwire. Those services store your credit card information and it's not given to the retailer when you make a payment. Many big retailers, including Home Depot, accept PayPal at their stores, but many others don't. Apple Pay, which was only introduced this month, has even more limitations: It is available in just a small number of stores so far and only people with an iPhone 6 can use it.
Stored-value cards or apps, such as the ones used at coffee chains Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, are also a safer bet, says Gartner security analyst Avivah Litan. That's because they don't expose credit card information at the register.
2. SIGN IT, DON'T PIN IT
If you're planning on paying with a debit card, sign for your purchase instead of typing in your personal identification number at the cash register. You can do this by asking the cashier to process the card as a credit card or select credit card on the display. Not entering you PIN into a keypad will help reduce the chances of a hacker stealing that number too, Young says. Crooks can do more damage with your PIN, possibly printing a copy of the card and taking money out of an ATM, he says. During Target's breach last year, the discount retailer said hackers gained access to customers' PINs. Home Depot, however, said there was no indication that PINs were compromised in the breach at its stores.