If you've shopped at a Barnes & Noble recently, take note: Hackers broke into the bookseller's systems and stole credit card information from dozens of stores across the country, the New York Times reports. Some of those cards appear to have been fraudulently charged, as well.
[Read: 10 Smart Ways to Improve Your Budget.]
It's only the latest hacker attack in a year that's been full of high-profile ones: In January, Zappos, which is owned by Amazon, announced that its system was hacked into and that affected customers should immediately create new passwords. In April, Global Payments Inc., which processes transactions for major card companies including Visa and American Express, announced that hackers had stolen up to 1.5 million card numbers.
Fortunately, savvy consumers can do a lot to protect themselves, both in the wake of a hacking attach and beforehand. Here are our top tips for avoiding the wrath of hackers:
1. Create strong passwords, and don't use the same password in multiple places. Simple words or common names are easy to guess. Same goes for using children's names or birthdays, which many people might know. Instead, create a long password that combines numbers and letters, which can be easier to remember if it represents a sentence or other mnemonic device.
Similarly, using the same password across multiple accounts makes customers more vulnerable if one of their accounts experiences a breach. That's another reason to consider changing passwords every few months, as well, to guard against unreported break-ins.
2. Review your account statements religiously. The first sign of trouble is often a charge that doesn't look familiar. Hackers sometime make "test" purchases before bigger ones to see if they can get away with it. Be on the lookout for any charges, big or small, that you didn't make. If you see any, call your card company right away and report it. As long as cardholders report fraudulent charges within a reasonable time frame, then they are seldom responsible for them.
3. Know your rights. In general, credit cards offer fraud liability protection, which usually means consumers are on the hook for no more than $50, as long as any fraud is noticed and reported in a timely manner. Staying in touch with your card provider, and responding quickly to any messages from the fraud department, which is often first to notice problems, can help keep customers out of trouble.
4. Only shop on reputable, secure sites. Not all e-commerce websites are created equal; some smaller players lack the rigorous guards against hackers that the bigger companies employ. (At the same time, big companies are more likely to be the targets of large-scale scam artists.) Customers should be extra wary when shopping from sites they aren't familiar with, or when using public Wi-Fi connections, or when shopping via smartphone.
5. Protect your phone. Customers who frequently use their smartphones for financial transactions with a bank app, or who store a lot of personal information or passwords in email, should consider adding password-protection to the phone. That way, if it gets lost, their accounts are better protected.
6. Don't be everyone's friend. You never know who's lurking among your friends and acquaintances. Hackers have targeted Gmail, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and users of those sites should be especially wary of clicking on embedded links, even those "recommended" by friends. Hackers also send emails that appear to be from social networking sites but are, in fact, fake emails designed to capture personal information. Users should avoid clicking on links embedded in emails.