Credit Card HackIt ain't pretty and it never is. No one likes to hear that their bank, credit card issuer, transaction processor, or any of the merchants they've used who issue plastic has been hit with a security breach.

In the latest hack attack, which was revealed Friday, third-party credit card processor Global Payments (GPN) said that it believes up to 1.5 million credit cards issued in North America may have been compromised, with security thieves potentially stealing "Track 2" information such as the account numbers, expiration dates, and three-digit PINs on the back of customers' cards. Cardholders' names, addresses, and Social Security numbers, however, weren't pilfered, the company says.

While the scope of the Global Payments attack was not as wide as Sony's PlayStation Network attack last year that affected approximately 77 million account holders, or TJX Cos. massive data breach of 2005 and 2006 that affected upward of 100 million credit and debit card accounts, consumers would be wise to take security steps now, even if their card-issuing bank hasn't sent a notice that they were potentially among the Visa or MasterCard accounts that were hit, say security experts.

Before the Letter Arrives

Consumers who access their accounts online should be checking the transaction history of their bank-issued credit cards daily, says Julie McNelley, retail banking research director for Aite Group.

That way, you can catch any unauthorized transactions on the credit card quickly and give the bank a heads-up. (Banks will investigate and reimburse customers for unauthorized transactions on their credit card accounts.) "Consumers should be checking their accounts all the time, anyways, even when there isn't a security breach" in the news, she says.

And for plastic-using consumers who don't haven't set up online access to their card accounts, McNelley highly recommends they consider signing up -- pronto.

After the 'You've Been Comprised' Letter Is Sent

Once the dreaded letter arrives that your credit card account may have been compromised, be prepared: In some states, your bank will block the account and reissue a new credit card and number.

Consumers who have automatic payments set up using the affected credit card will need to get busy notifying merchants and service providers of the new account number.

"Usually smaller banks will do this, too, because they don't have the same level of analysts as the big banks do to keep an eye on potential fraud from the attack," McNelley says.

In some cases, state laws or a bank's own internal policy will call for providing free credit reports to help consumers monitor any illicit or unauthorized activity that crops up with the consumer's pilfered personal information. "Those services are useful, but they shouldn't be viewed as a silver bullet," McNelley warns. "There is always a lag in the data."

For example, thieves who have stolen a consumer's name, address and Social Security number may try to open a new credit card account with the information. But it will take some time before the additional credit card pops up on the credit report that the consumer receives.

Preventive steps: Credit or debit?

When given a choice between paying with a credit card or debit card at an unattended point-of-service machine such as a gas pump or video rental kiosk box, always go for the credit card.

Data theives have been known to station miniature cameras in strategic locations to catch images of people entering their debit card PIN numbers into point-of-sale machines. If they place a skimming machine over the real card reader, they can pilfer the account data from the debit card's magnetic strip too. Between those two methods, McNelley warns, they have all the data they need.

"If you use a debit card, they can withdraw the funds immediately from your bank account and you'll be out of those funds until the bank investigates and puts the money back in," he explains.

Motley Fool contributor Dawn Kawamoto d
oes not own any stocks in the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of MasterCard. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Visa.

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June 03 2012 at 6:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In the wake of Global Payments' data breach, there has been a lot of advice on what people should do to protect themselves, but way too often we are asked to do more than what's needed and that can needlessly lead to different issues. However, while the damage done by the hackers is real, they cannot harm us without first tricking us into revealing the information they don't yet have (name, address, SSN). So as long as we are cautious and don't give our personal information to strangers, we will do just fine. For more:

April 05 2012 at 7:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lord Michel

While this idea might not stop credit card fraud completely, it would slow it down.....the card issuers could use a random mix of letters AND numbers for account numbers. This would make them harder to hack. This method of protection is recommended for computer passwords, so why not use it for credit cards too? I suggeted it to a rep from my card issuer, and she liked it and was going ot suggest it to management where she works. It could happen.

April 05 2012 at 2:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

hello ???????? no one knows what is or ain't with their credit card carriers ?
what you can be held responsible for and vice versa ?

April 04 2012 at 11:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I got hit but the security company got wind of it almost immediately and fixed the problem. they were right on the ball!

April 04 2012 at 5:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The anti hacker laws should have the greatest penulties, like felony 1, these smart asses screw up the systems for profit and or fun. Thinking there smart, we need to make them find out just how dam dum their actions are and give them no quarter.

April 04 2012 at 7:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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Yeah that's right. Go online, sign in to that account that contains your SS#, D.O.B. etc. and the hackers are on the other end signing it out. Anyone who uses the internet for banking or other financial transcations hasn't been hacked YET. Banks don't care. They will eat the loss. But you.....expect at least 12-18 months, hundereds of phone calls, dozens of notarized letters and countless forms filled out to get your credit rating back. DON'T say you haven't been warned!

April 03 2012 at 4:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

ever notice these breaches only occur in blue states?

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April 03 2012 at 9:17 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply