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Advice

A closer look at how fraudsters get your info—and how to protect yourself

A new report from Sift breaks down advanced methods fraudsters use to capture your information. Here's what to look for as our economy moves even more rapidly online.

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Even before the coronavirus pandemic, e-commerce was starting to become the norm for American shoppers.

But as we've moved nearly every facet of our lives online — from work to school to social gatherings — consumers should stay alert.

"Covid accelerated e-commerce to a level that's five years before it would have been without the pandemic," explains Jeff Sakasegawa, Sift's trust and safety architect. Fraudsters are getting more sophisticated at getting our personal information, such as credit card numbers, social security numbers and bank account numbers, even as we grow more comfortable interacting virtually.

And it's not just a handful of bad actors, Sakasegawa tells CNBC Select. There's actually an entire network of fraudsters operating underground in what the digital safety industry refers to as an "illicit supply chain."

Fortunately, fraud tends to follow some recognizable patterns that you can predict, so there are easy steps you can take to protect yourself.

Common kinds of credit card fraud

These days, one of the most pervasive patterns of fraud is content abuse. This is an umbrella term for when fraudsters use clever tactics to disguise online content to look legitimate so that you share your personal information. You probably see hundreds of postings per day on social media, in online communities and on job boards. And while some might seem a little "off," in times of desperation, fraudsters hope you can be easily tricked into sharing your personal information.

According to Sift's latest report, content abusers often work together in networks, forming a whole scam economy that preys on consumers' needs and wants. Fraudsters might post ads for AirBnbs or vacation homes, jobs, bargains and limited-time deals that seem too good to pass up. The branding, photography and descriptions may seem legitimate and mimic the brands you trust and/or processes you use every day.

And given how much our day-to-day world is changing due to coronavirus precautions, fraudsters are hoping you might not detect a bad actor right away.

Take hotel reservations, for example. It's commonplace for hotels to ask for a credit card to hold your booking. But now that businesses in other sectors, including restaurants, gyms and hair salons, are opening at limited capacity, you might find that they adopt a similar model and require that you hold your spot with a small deposit.

As we assimilate to this "new normal," it might become more common for strangers to ask for your card number, making fraud harder to detect.

How to protect yourself against credit card fraud

To protect yourself from content abuse, Sakasegawa suggests following a few time-tested best practices that are still as relevant as ever.

  1. Don't ignore red flags. "A reasonable person generally has a good spidey sense of what's right and wrong," says Sakasegawa. Trust it.
  2. Check suspicious URLs or domain names. If you get an email from a website with a domain ending in .zz, .info, etc. instead of the more common is .com or .org, don't trust it. "If the domain seems a little off, don't just plow ahead," says Sakasegawa. Use Whois.com or another website to check the registration information of the website you think is scamming you. You will be able to see the date the website was established. If it's brand new, chances are a scammer just made it.
  3. Call the business directly. If you get an email from a big box retailer or bank, a good sensible thing to do is to always contact that institution directly. "Fraudsters often rely on direct communication with you and always make themselves seem legitimate," says Sakasegawa. If someone calls or emails you to ask for information, ask them if you can confirm the information they have instead, or better yet — look up the number yourself and call them back before verifying anything.
  4. Use a credit card with $0 fraud liability. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), you can only be held liable for up to a maximum of $50 in the event of fraudulent charges on your credit card account. However, a number of major issuers take this a step further and guarantee zero liability with the caveat that you have to act quickly when something's not right. (Read what to do when your credit card information is stolen.) Two popular cash-back credit cards that offer $0 fraud liability are the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express and the Chase Freedom®.
  5. Monitor your credit report. Credit monitoring services can provide you with early notice of potential fraud on your credit report. These services can't actually prevent identity theft, but they can alert you early when something isn't right. CNBC Select ranked the best free and paid credit monitoring services, and IdentityForce® is our best overall paid service that offers a wide range of features.

IdentityForce® UltraSecure and UltraSecure+Credit

IdentityForce® UltraSecure and UltraSecure+Credit
On Identity Force's secure site
  • Cost

    2 months free on all annual plans UltraSecure: $8.99/mo, $89.90/yr UltraSecure+Credit: $19.99/mo, $199.90/yr

  • Credit bureaus monitored

    Experian, Equifax and TransUnion

  • Credit scoring model used

    VantageScore

  • Dark web scan

    Yes

  • Identity insurance

    Yes, up to $1 million

See our methodology, terms apply. To learn more about IdentityForce®, visit their website or call 855-979-1118. 

Don't miss: Here's our full breakdown of the best credit monitoring services of 2020

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

To learn more about IdentityForce®, visit their website or call 855-979-1118.

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.