The tactics used to fight credit card scams are getting more sophisticated all the time. Unfortunately, so are the tactics used by credit card scammers.
More than 2.3 million cases of fraud and identity theft were reported in 2019, according to the Federal Trade Commission — an increase of 26% from five years earlier and 138% in a decade. Credit card-related scams accounted for a significant chunk of those cases, including more than 40% of identity theft reports. And those were just the cases that were reported to law enforcement and consumer protection agencies.
Whether they’re putting a new spin on an old scam or inventing a new scheme, calling on the phone or reaching out over the internet, credit card scammers are always lurking and looking to strike. Knowing how the most common scams work and how to avoid falling for them can keep your money and your identity safe.
Here are six common credit card scams to watch out for.
1. The charity scam
This credit card scam is a particularly cruel violation of people's good-hearted instincts to help.
Right after a tragedy like a hurricane, flood or wildfire, scammers get to work, calling or emailing and appealing to people to help victims with a donation. They’ll often pretend to be from a reputable charity like the Red Cross or the Salvation Army.
When a "charity worker" calls with a detailed, sad story and asks for help, it can be hard to say no. The pleas for funds are often presented as urgent, too, to get people to cough up their credit card numbers quickly.
How to avoid the charity scam
If you’re inclined to give money to help after a disaster, it's best to do it proactively by contacting a charity yourself. You can check whether a charity is legitimate by using the IRS’ tax-exempt organization search or a resource like Charity Navigator.
If someone calls you seeking a donation, don't give your credit card information, even if it seems legitimate. Write down any information they give you, then politely hang up. Search the web for the phone number and put quotation marks around the number in your search. Often, you’ll find that the number that called you has been previously been identified as a scam caller. If the charity is legitimate and you want to help, donate directly through its website.
2. The hotspot scam
It's common advice to be careful when using a public Wi-Fi network, since crooks could be monitoring these networks. But sometimes the network itself is a trap, carefully laid by credit card scammers who are waiting to pounce on your information.
In this credit card scam, your smartphone or laptop finds a "public Wi-Fi hotspot," and when you connect to it, you're prompted for credit card information to pay for internet access. The hotspot is fake, and you’re actually giving your credit card information directly to the scammers. In other cases, the hotspot is free and does offer internet access, but the scammers watch your every move. They record passwords you enter, peek into your bank account when you check it and capture your data in other ways.
How to avoid the hotspot scam
If you need to access public Wi-Fi at a restaurant or store, ask an employee for the correct network name and password information. Be wary of generic-sounding names like "Free Public Wi-Fi." Avoid logging into your bank account or providing any sensitive information if you can.
Another way to protect yourself is to use a VPN or virtual private network. This creates a secure connection you can use even on unsecured public networks.
3. The credit card 'sign-up farm' scam
Victims of this credit card scam are often willing participants, duped by the promise of easy money for helping generate what they're told are legitimate credit card rewards. In reality, it's a scam to rip off card issuers, often on a massive scale. In May, federal prosecutors in New Jersey charged two men with running an elaborate "sign-up farm" that cost American Express more than $8 million.
People running these scams recruit people with good credit and offer to pay them for the use of their Social Security numbers to open credit card accounts. The scammers rack up huge balances on the cards to generate rewards points, convert the points to cash, then cancel the purchases. In some cases, they don't even bother canceling, and the victim is left on the hook.
Victims are typically promised payments of $1,000 to $10,000 for the use of their information, although some never get paid. And they're usually told that the spending on the cards will be legitimate, even though the whole point is to defraud the issuer. Victims can wind up responsible for huge balances, see their credit trashed and have their own credit card and airline rewards accounts frozen.
How to avoid the sign-up farm scam
The lure of easy money can be hard for anyone to resist, and even more so for those who are struggling financially. But it's wise to assume that easy money doesn't exist.
The simplest way to avoid falling victim to credit card farming scams is to never give or sell your Social Security number or any personally identifiable information to someone else. To make sure no one is using your identity to open accounts without your knowledge, check your credit report for free for any irregularities.
4. The interest rate scam
Millions of people are familiar with this classic robocall scam. You answer a phone call, often from an unknown number, and a recorded message gives you the great news that you’re eligible to negotiate significantly lower interest rates on your credit card balances. The message claims to have inside connections to credit card companies and can work on your behalf to reduce your payments by thousands of dollars. There are no such connections — the whole thing is a setup to get you to reveal your credit card information.
If your interest is piqued enough to continue listening, you’ll be taken to a live operator. The "helpful" representative will quickly ask you sensitive questions to harvest your personal data and credit card information.
In a slightly more legitimate — but still costly — variation of this scheme, the caller contacts the credit card company and successfully lowers your rate, and you get charged hundreds or thousands of dollars for the service. The problem is that they aren't doing anything you couldn't have done yourself for free. You have just as much clout with the credit card company as a third party when it comes to lowering your interest rate. Your issuer may give you the option to transfer your balance to a different card that offers a lower APR.
"If you’re looking to reduce the interest rate you’re paying on your credit card purchases, your best bet is to handle it yourself for free," says the Federal Trade Commission. "Call the customer service phone number on the back of your credit card and ask for a reduced rate."
How to avoid the interest rate scam
If you want to lower your credit card interest rate, reach out to the issuer directly. It won't hurt you to ask, even if they say no.
If you do get a robocall promising to cut your rates — or any other offer that sounds too good to be true — just hang up. Never give out or confirm sensitive information to someone who calls out of the blue. To reduce sales calls, put your phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry, then keep in mind that legitimate businesses adhere to the registry while scammers don't.
» MORE: How to prevent identity theft
5. The overcharge scam
This credit card scam is gaining ground as fewer transactions are handled in cash and more shopping moves online. It goes like this: You get a call or a text telling you that your credit card was overcharged on a recent purchase. How helpful! The problem is that it isn’t true. The scammer will ask a bunch of questions intended to get at your personal information.
According to the Better Business Bureau, this scam is especially convincing because the scammers will often address the target by name. And with more and more small, everyday purchases being put on credit cards, the vague "recent purchase" angle becomes more convincing.
How to avoid the overcharge scam
Don’t give sensitive personal information over the phone. Hang up. Check your credit card statement. If something there seems out of whack, contact your credit card issuer yourself by calling the number on the back of your card.
6. The skim scam
It was hoped that the widespread adoption of EMV chip technology would wipe out skimming, but it has proved persistent. In fact, the latest data from the credit scoring company FICO found that the number of payment cards compromised at merchant card readers and ATMs increased 10% in 2017.
A skimmer is a small electronic device installed by crooks on card readers on gas pumps, ATMs and elsewhere. The skimmer reads the information from the magnetic stripe on your credit or debit card when you swipe or insert the card. They can be hard to detect, and some of the newer ones are all but impossible to see with the naked eye.
Skimmers are especially prevalent in tourist-heavy areas during high season. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, "it’s critical that people are aware of exactly what to look out for because each skimmer can defraud consumers up to a million dollars."
How to avoid the skim scam
Though skimmers are often well-concealed, sometimes you can tell that something looks off. Look for signs of tampering on ATM or gas station card readers, including devices attached on top of or beside the card slot. Move toward using a mobile wallet and contactless payments to avoid using your physical card.
Check your account balances and transactions often. If you see something amiss, notify your credit card issuer right away to report the fraud.