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How Can Someone Use My Credit Card Without Having It? A Complete Guide to Theft Prevention

Ashley Ferraro, Product
Oct 6, 2023
 Min Read

With stolen credit card info alone, fraudsters caused over $5.7 billion in losses for U.S. consumers in 2022. Most of those cases don’t involve thieves obtaining physical debit or credit cardsstolen credit card numbers are enough for fraudulent online and mail-order transactions. 

If you’re wondering, “How can someone use my credit card without having it,” this guide will explain:

How Do Scammers Steal Credit Card Numbers?

Thieves can find your credit card number in multiple ways without physically stealing the card. The eight most common methods are:

  1. Shoulder surfing
  2. Card skimming and shimming
  3. RFID collection
  4. Phishing scams
  5. Malicious software
  6. Public Wi-Fi hacks
  7. Online store hacks

We’ll cover each of these techniques in more detail below.

Shoulder Surfing

As the name suggests, shoulder surfing involves looking over someone’s shoulder as they use an ATM or enter their credit card PIN at a payment terminal. 

A woman in a red sweater swiping her card through a POS terminal while a smiling female shop clerk operates another screen.
Source: Unsplash

Experienced thieves don’t need more than a few moments to memorize your credit card information or take a picture of it for later reference. In rarer instances, criminals use binoculars and other vision-enhancing hardware to see your credit card number from a distance. 

Card Skimmers and Shimmers

Tech-savvy criminals may use small devices called “skimmers” to collect your credit card numbers. These devices copy data from cards’ magnetic strips, allowing criminals to manufacture cloned cards. 

A man in a blue blazer swiping a black credit card through a POS terminal
Source: Pixabay

Shimmers, on the other hand, have the same purpose but target newer chip-based credit cards instead of older ones with magnetic strips. Both skimmers and shimmers are typically installed in card readers on unattended sale terminals, like public transit payment stations or gas stations. 

RFID Collection

Most modern credit cards support contactless payments via radio-frequency identification (RFID). These cards have a radio transmitter that sends a wireless signal to a radio receiver in a payment terminal during transactions. If a thief can get physically close to you, they can use an RFID reader to steal your credit card information wirelessly by intercepting the signal.

The information criminals could steal via RFID collection includes:

  • Cardholder’s name
  • Card number
  • Expiration date

Phishing Scams

Phishing is one of the most common schemes used in stealing credit card numbers. During these scams, thieves attempt to lure you into providing your card information willingly by pretending to be a legitimate and trusted source, such as a:

  • Credit card company
  • Bank
  • Tech company whose products or services you use
  • Government agency
  • Social media platform
  • Charity
  • Online store

Phishing entails fraudsters sending emails or text messages requesting your credit card information. The emails may contain links to fake websites where you’re asked to enter your credit card number. Alternatively, fraudsters may ask you to include the information in response to their text message or email.

Malicious Software

Cybercriminals sometimes use email phishing attacks to deploy malicious software—or malware—to your devices. Some malware can steal sensitive information from your device, including your credit card information. 

Keyloggers are the most common type of malware. They record every keystroke on your device, giving criminals access to everything you type, including credit card information for online purchases. The information is transmitted to the hackers, allowing them to perform criminal activities such as selling your card data on the Dark Web, conducting unauthorized online transactions, or creating fake credit cards.

Public Wi-Fi Hacks

Open Wi-Fi networks, like the Wi-Fi at your local coffee shop or the airport, aren’t safe for making online transactions

A man in a grey sweater looking at his phone at a coffee shop, with a glass of water, coffee cup, and laptop on his table.
Source: Unsplash

Hackers may use man-in-the-middle attacks to intercept data transmitted over public Wi-Fi. If they position themselves between the router and your device, your data will go to the hackers first, before the Internet. Data at risk includes credit card numbers you use for online payments.

Cybercriminals can also set up networks that seem like real public Wi-Fi. If you connect to their fake wireless network, hackers can read every piece of data you send and receive.

Online Store Hacks

In 2023, the global eCommerce market has been estimated at over $6 billion. Physical retailers are losing more market share to web stores each year. As an unfortunate consequence of this transition, online stores have become a lucrative target for cybercriminals. 

According to Statista, over 6 million data breaches occur each financial quarter. One data breach at a major tech company like Facebook or T-Mobile can contain information from millions of credit cards, making them attractive targets for hackers.

Online stores are also targeted by hackers because they often keep your credit card data on file to streamline future purchases. While keeping a card on file is convenient, it also allows hackers who gain access to the store’s database to steal your credit card info. Cybercriminals may use shockingly simple attacks to break into online databases, such as taking advantage of weak passwords and known vulnerabilities that need patching, or may employ much more sophisticated methods, such as refined phishing attacks or ransomware.

What To Do When Someone Uses Your Credit Card Fraudulently

If you believe someone has used your credit card without your knowledge, the first thing you should do is contact the bank or credit union that issued your credit card. Most credit card issuers have a fraud protection and security department whose representatives can help you by:

  1. Freezing or closing your account
  2. Closing the compromised credit card
  3. Clearing fraudulent purchases from your account

For cybercriminals to obtain your credit card numbers, they usually have to gain access to your online accounts first. As a result, your next step should be changing all your passwords. 

If you didn’t have two-factor authentication (2FA) enabled before, turn it on now. 2FA is a more secure login process that confirms your identity via two factors—your password and a confirmation code sent to your device—ensuring that no one can log into your account with your credentials alone. 

After turning on 2FA to prevent further unauthorized access, request a copy of your credit report and review it for fraudulent activity. It’s important to check for two things:

  1. Have thieves gained access to any other credit accounts? 
  2. Have they opened new lines of credit in your name?
A person in a dark beige sweater with two bracelets typing on a laptop.
Source: Unsplash

Once you report the theft to your bank, they’ll take it from there. The bank will block your card and issue a replacement or may even involve law enforcement if exorbitant amounts are stolen. While consumer credit card users are generally protected in the case of theft by the Fair Credit Billing Act, it is still crucial to report the criminal activity timely.

You can also file a report with the Federal Trade Commission and receive a recovery plan if you suspect your credit card number has been used for identity theft.

How To Minimize the Risk of Credit Card Number Theft

You can take various steps to reduce the risk of credit card scams. Consult the table below for information on how to prevent different types of theft:

Credit Card Scam
How To Prevent It
Shoulder surfing
Be aware of your surroundings and block others from seeing your PIN or credit card info.
Card skimmers and shimmers
- Use contactless phone payments via digital wallets, such as Apple Pay or Google Pay.
- Avoid using unattended ATMs.
- Check for signs of tampering with POS terminals, such as marks and scratches around the card slot, a loose PIN pad, or an unusually wide card slot.
RFID collection
- Mind your surroundings while paying with a credit card.
- Use an RFID-protected card sleeve.
Phishing scams
- Create a strong password for each online account.
- Enable 2FA.
- Don’t open suspicious email links or attachments.
- Check the email addresses of all senders for possible inconsistencies.
Public Wi-Fi hacks
Refrain from online purchases on public networks or at least use a VPN.
Online store hacks
- Never store your payment info on a merchant's website.
- Be mindful of which online merchants you provide your card details to.
- Start using virtual cards.

Being selective about where you use your debit or credit cards online can help up to a point, but it's not foolproof. One of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of having your card information stolen is to shop online with virtual cards instead of your credit or debit card. 

Virtual cards are digitally generated with unique credentials, but they’re linked to your real debit card, bank account, or credit line. You can use them for online payments and avoid revealing your real card numbers. In case of a data breach, the hackers could only access your virtual card number, while your actual card and bank account information remains protected.

If you need a convenient and safe way to make payments online, consider signing up for Privacy Virtual Cards. This virtual card provider issues cards through both Mastercard® and Visa® networks. Privacy Cards are bank-agnostic, allowing you to connect almost any U.S. bank account to fund your virtual card transactions.

Protect Your Card Information—Create Privacy Virtual Cards

With Privacy, you can easily protect your financial information with multiple virtual payment cards linked to your chosen debit card or bank account. Two types of Privacy Cards are available:

  • Single-Use: This card closes after the first transaction, eliminating the risk of fraudsters misusing your virtual card information if they obtain it.
  • Merchant-Locked: A Merchant-Locked card locks to the first merchant it’s used at. If a hacker obtains the virtual card number, they won't be able to use it elsewhere.

Other Benefits of Privacy Virtual Cards

The platform allows you to effectively manage your spending by setting limits on Privacy Cards by year, month, or transaction. You can also share Privacy Cards with close family members while remaining in control of the card settings at all times. 

The pausing/closing feature is beneficial for blocking unauthorized charges from sneaky merchants. If you want to stop a subscription service from charging you while you’re going through the cancellation process, close or pause your virtual card, and Privacy will block the charges. The process is quick and effortless and doesn’t affect your real card or bank data.

Your online purchases are both safer and more convenient with Privacy, thanks to the platform’s Firefox, Chrome, and Safari browser extensions. The extension ensures a seamless shopping experience by autofilling your Privacy Cards’ numbers, expiration dates, and CVVs in online forms. With Privacy, you don’t have to reach for your wallet or type in card numbers manually. 

You can also download dedicated iOS and Android apps for fast and safe shopping on your phone. The mobile app sends push notifications whenever your Privacy Cards have been used or declined, making it easy to keep track of your purchases in real time. 

You can also take advantage of Privacy’s partnership with 1Password—use the password manager to store your passwords and virtual cards and manage them effortlessly from a centralized dashboard.

Create your Privacy account to shop more safely today. 

Create Your First Privacy Card in Four Easy Steps

To create your first Privacy Virtual Card, follow these quick steps:

  1. Go to the registration page
  2. Provide the mandatory Know-Your-Customer (KYC) information
  3. Connect your bank account or debit card
  4. Request and generate a Privacy Virtual Card

With the platform’s basic tier, you can create up to 12 virtual cards per month. The two paid tiers provide the following benefits:

Privacy Subscription
New Cards per Month Other Features Price
- Priority support
- 1% cashback on eligible transactions totaling up to $4,500 per month
- Masked transactions on bank statements
- No foreign transaction fees
60 - All Pro features
- Dedicated account management
Privacy — Seamless & Secure Online Card Payments
Checkout securely online by creating unique virtual card numbers for every purchase. Avoid data breaches, unwanted charges, and stolen credit card numbers.
Sign Up
Privacy — Seamless & Secure Online Card Payments
Checkout securely online by creating unique virtual card numbers for every purchase. Avoid data breaches, unwanted charges, and stolen credit card numbers.
Sign Up
Privacy virtual cards
Spending Limits

Set a spending limit, and Privacy will block all charges that go over the limit

Merchant-Locked Cards

Lock your Privacy card to one merchant you frequently shop from

Single-Use Cards

Secure your one-time payments to websites whose trust worthiness you're unsure of

Pause/Close Cards

By pausing or closing a card, Privacy will block all future transactions

Get a Privacy Card Now
Privacy — Seamless & Secure Online Card Payments
Checkout securely online by creating unique virtual card numbers for every purchase. Avoid data breaches, unwanted charges, and stolen credit card numbers.
Sign Up
Privacy — Seamless & Secure Online Card Payments
Sign Up