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Credit card fraud during coronavirus: Here's what to look out for

As new information on the coronavirus pandemic is sought out, hackers try to take advantage. CNBC Select recommends tips to protect your credit during the coronavirus pandemic.

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It goes without saying that you should always exercise caution when receiving emails with attachments or phone calls from someone you don't know.

But as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, hackers may be leveraging your vulnerability to steal your personal data, including your credit card information.

Below, CNBC Select recommends specific tips for staying safe and protecting yourself against credit card fraud during this time.

1. Look out for emails with a coronavirus-related subject line

Most of our inboxes are probably getting inundated with coronavirus updates, whether it be from stores we've shopped at, restaurants we've dined at or apps that we use. But be careful about which emails you open and click through — and never reveal your financial information in these email solicitations.

Recently, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued an alert warning Americans to be wary of any emails with a coronavirus-related subject line, attachment or hyperlink that shares information about the virus.

The CISA also notes that texts, calls or social media posts should be monitored carefully.

Clicking through on suspicious emails and links not only puts your computer at risk for any malware, but it can assist a hacker in getting access to any credit card information you may have saved online.

2. Verify a charity's authenticity before making a donation

While we all want to help contribute to those who are in need the most during this time, be careful before you donate using a credit card. Make sure the organization you are giving money to is legitimate by referring to the Federal Trade Commission's page on Charity Scams beforehand.

"Cyber actors may send emails with malicious attachments or links to fraudulent websites to trick victims into revealing sensitive information or donating to fraudulent charities or causes," the CISA states.

3. Audit your credit card activity online weekly 

Keeping an eye on your credit card charges in general is important, but make sure you are looking at your online activity for anything that seems suspicious. 

And when it comes to your actual credit report, there are simple and free ways to monitor this now and throughout the year to check on your overall financial health. Dave O'Brien, principal at EVOadvisers and chair of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA), tells CNBC Select two of his recommendations (both free): 

  1. Visit annualcreditreport.com: Obtain your credit file from one of the three main credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. "Make sure to do this annually to be sure there is no activity on your credit report that you did not initiate," O'Brien says.
  2. Consider a credit monitoring service: Services like LifeLock and IdentityForce keep you in the loop all year long by monitoring your accounts. "You are notified if new credit is issued in your name, you can see the amount of credit checks made on you and any changes to your score," O'Brien says.

4. Never use debit cards for online purchases

There's no absolute way to prevent card fraud, but you can take measures to limit your liability for fraudulent purchases by paying with the right card. 

Credit card issuers, such as Chase, typically offer 24-hour fraud protection and identity theft assistance with travel cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, and cash-back cards, such as the Chase Freedom Unlimited®. They also guarantee no liability, whereas if someone steals your debit card information, you could be fully liable (unless you report them before 60 days after your statement is sent to you).

For this reason, O'Brien suggests either using one of your dedicated credit card for online purchases, or using PayPal or Apple Pay in place of physical cards.

5. Freeze your credit

Now is the time to be extra careful of fraudulent activity — and that may mean putting your credit on freeze.

Credit freezes are easy to set up, easy to unfreeze when you need to and they are a smart way to protect unauthorized access to your credit report. Freezing your credit helps prevent fraudsters from opening new accounts in your name, even if they have your personal information.

"But [it] also means you will need to unfreeze it if you apply for a new mortgage, loan or other credit," O'Brien says. "Make sure to freeze it again after that loan is issued."

Credit freezes only take about 30 to 45 minutes to set up. While they don't prevent someone from stealing your credit card number, they could save you plenty of time and money in the long run.

Bottom line

As consumers are constantly searching for updates and new information on the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to realize that there are hackers taking advantage of this. Make sure you have strong password and authentication options set up on all your credit cards, as well as alerts for any suspicious activity on your card.

Information about the Chase Freedom Unlimited® has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.