Your credit, debit cards at risk? Protect yourself from fraud

SEATTLE -- "If you are someone who uses a credit card or a debit card to conduct transactions, at some point and time that information is going to be compromised."

Those are sobering words from Robert Kierstead, a Seattle agent with the U.S. Secret Service, charged with investigating financial crimes.

"Historically, we have been an agency that specializes in financial types of crimes, most notably or historically, counterfeit currency. In 1984, we added credit card fraud."

So far this year, more than 75 million people have had their private information compromised as a result of security breaches. That`s according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.

One of the most common ways is through what`s called "point of sale."

Chad Larsen is with Leviathan Security and specializes in online safety.

"What we have is the credit card, the magnetic strip being read into memory, and that`s transmitted into back-end banks," Larsen said. "Well, that has to happen in the clear. The transmission is secured itself, but the actual reading of the numbers that are embedded into the magnetic stripe happens inside the computer`s memory."

And once that memory is accessed and those numbers stolen, they can be sold on the black market. It doesn't take a computer genius though to steal your cash.

"The number one way that consumers can protect themselves is by having good, operational security, and that`s in choosing pass phrases that are not easily guessable by computer, and by just having good computer security hygiene."

A pass phrase -- not a password -- is recommended. And of course, keeping on top of your anti-malware software is also key. And...

"Be very cautious about any e-mail that you receive about clicking or unwittingly downloading any attachments," Kierstead said.

Finally, check your statements regularly. Most victims don`t and depending on the bank you use, time could be your most valuable defense.

"Our recommendation would be credit cards, but the way the banks and the banking laws are set up is that if you report your loss that the financial institution, they`re to be responsible for it. I do know that with a debit card transaction, there is a finite amount of time that the consumer has to pick up and report that. With a credit card, you have a little bit more time," he said.