5 Common Credit Card Scams and How to Avoid Them

Woman in white shirt holding checking credit card info on mobile phone.

Credit card scams can come in different forms, but the end goal is often to trick you into sharing your credit card's details along with your personal information, or to get you to send the scammer money. The scammer can then sell your card info, try to use it before you notice or take the money and disappear.

In general, credit cards are a relatively safe form of payment. The card isn't tied directly to your bank account, and you can dispute a charge if you don't receive the product or service as described. You also generally aren't liable for unauthorized transactions. Still, you want to be wary of these common credit card scams:

1. Phishing Call, Email and Text Scams

Many scams start with a phishing phone call, email or text that's intended to get you to share your credit card or personal details. Often, these scams are intended to make you feel like you need to act quickly.

For example, a phishing email might warn you that one of your services (such as utilities, water or internet) is going to be shut off unless you act quickly to update your payment information. But the link you're sent to take care of it instead takes you to a phony website that steals your personal information.

Or, a scammer might call you after a major natural disaster claiming to be from a reputable charity and asking for your donation to support relief efforts. It can be hard to recognize in the moment—especially when you want to help. The next thing you know, the scammer has your credit card number and can begin using it fraudulently.

You also might get a "smishing" text claiming to be from your credit card company or a merchant. There could be a warning that your credit card was overcharged or that there was suspicious activity. You might be prompted to respond by text, click a link or call a customer service line before being asked to enter or verify your credit card and personal information.

2. Interest-Rate Reduction and Debt Settlement Scams

If you're struggling with credit card debt, you might be tempted by companies' promises of lowering your interest rate or clearing away your debt for less than you owe. Some companies, such as nonprofit credit counseling agencies, may be able to help you legitimately negotiate with your credit card issuers. But there are also scammers that charge upfront and ongoing fees supposedly to help you reduce your credit card debt without delivering any service in return.

3. Online Shopping Scams

Some scammers set up fake ecommerce websites to steal shoppers' credit card details. They might create these websites to look like legitimate stores, complete with trademarks, professional (stolen) images and "https" (the lock symbol) in the URL. If you're allowed to use your credit card—some sites only accept payment methods that are harder to reverse, such as a wire transfer or cryptocurrency—the website's creator could steal your card's info. And it might be several days or weeks before you realize you aren't actually going to get the item you were promised.

4. Credit Card Skimming

Credit card skimming isn't really a scam in the sense that you're not getting tricked into sharing anything. But skimming and shimming devices are sometimes attached on top of (or inside) credit card readers. They can then make copies of your card's details if they're swiped, and the crooks can sell the info online or use it to create imposter credit cards.

5. Unsecured Wi-Fi

Similarly, scammers monitor a public Wi-Fi network or create and broadcast a Wi-Fi signal they control. They may be able to steal your credit card's information if you use it while you're connected to the network, or infect your computer with malware that can steal your information later.

How to Avoid Credit Card Scams

A few best practices can go a long way in keeping your credit card and personal information safe:

  • Initiate communications. Don't respond to phone calls, emails or texts using the number or link provided—even if something sounds urgent. Instead, look up the company's information and initiate the call or message yourself to ensure the contact was legitimate.
  • Monitor your credit card activity. Set up alerts in your credit card account or connect your cards to a budgeting app to look for suspicious charges. You can then quickly shut down your credit card before a scammer can use it again.
  • Use tap-to-pay or your mobile wallet. These methods can help you avoid credit card shimmers and skimmers. If you don't have those options, inserting your credit card's chip is safer than swiping.
  • Don't shop on public Wi-Fi. It's best to wait until you're on a trusted network before logging in to your online accounts or buying something online. If you can't wait, try to use your phone's mobile service rather than Wi-Fi.

Steps to Take if You're the Victim of Credit Card Fraud

If you got scammed or noticed unusual activity on your credit card, there are a few things that you can do to help protect yourself:

  1. Contact your credit card issuer. The bank or credit card company that issued your card can help cancel the card and send you a replacement.
  2. Report the fraud. File a report with the Federal Trade Commission. You may receive guidance on your next steps based on the specific circumstances, and the FTC can track scam trends and alert others to help keep them safe.
  3. File a report if your identity was stolen. If the scammer got your personal information in addition to your credit card details, you might want to file a report at IdentityTheft.gov. You'll receive a personalized plan and an Identity Theft Report, which you may need to share with creditors to get your accounts cleaned up.

Fortunately, you usually won't be personally responsible if someone uses your stolen credit card information. Instead, the merchant or credit card issuer might cover the cost of the products or services the thieves bought with your credit card.

But even that type of fraud can wind up costing you if stores need to raise their prices as a result. It's also best to be cautious in general because many scammers may try to steal your identity along with your credit card info.

Monitor Your Credit and Identity

Even if a scammer hasn't tricked you, you may want to regularly monitor your credit reports for unusual activity. Experian offers free credit monitoring with real-time alerts and a free credit score tracker. You can also look into an identity protection service, such as Experian IdentityWorksSM, if you want identity theft monitoring and fraud resolution assistance services.