Even if a lot of people like a thrill or two around Halloween, the phone call our family received recently was the kind of scare no one wants. It was our bank telling us about some unusual transactions on our debit card account, several thousand miles from anywhere we had been lately.
We were lucky. Our bank caught the problem quickly and the losses to some East coast merchant were minimal. Once we have finished disputing the purchases and receive our new card, we probably won't lose a cent.
It would be accurate to say this experience was a wake-up call. It's much harder to say we learned any sort of lesson. Other than constant vigilance, there don't seem to be many to learn.
Modern life has become an obstacle course of fairy-tale proportions. We are Red Riding Hoods in danger of being eaten by someone we think is our grandmother. We are Hansel and Gretel hoping we have left enough bread crumbs on the ground to lead us back to safety. And we are modern-day Jacks who think we are too bright to sell all we have for a handful of magic beans, but who may end up doing so anyway because the bone-grinding giant can make his website look just like something we normally trust.
With each lesson learned, the problems get harder. We have long-since learned not to trust the Nigerian who sends emails promising millions of dollars in return for a few thousand today, so the crooks instead try to grab us by looking exactly like our banks or by making phone calls supposedly on behalf of our favorite politician in need of cash.
If you want a sneak peak into the future, it can be summed up in a single phrase: It's not going to get easier. A recent story on Nasdaq.com told of how mobile wallet apps are the newest craze. Just pay for that stuff in your cart with your phone. Suddenly, "cashless society" sounds so last century. Welcome to the plastic-less society. And welcome to new opportunities for things to go very wrong.
As far as my wife and I can tell, we may have used a card reader that had been hacked, perhaps at a gas station. That's not at all uncommon. Just ask Barnes & Noble customers. The company announced in recent days that devices customers used to swipe their cards in 63 separate stores from coast to coast have been tampered with.
Company officials said someone planted bugs in the devices, allowing them to capture card and PIN numbers. They warned customers to check their accounts for unauthorized transactions, which could be as effective as checking the palm trees for coconuts after the hurricane has passed.
Police are more sophisticated than ever when it comes to tracking down these crimes, but they have trouble staying ahead. As one Wisconsin detective recently told the Green Bay Press Gazette, "Technology is just advancing so fast. As soon as we stop one way of doing something, someone is thinking of another way."
We didn't get here all at once, of course, which is why we continue down the road despite the dangers. The advantages of a cashless, or even plastic-less, existence are considered worth the risks. We have access to our accounts no matter where we are and no matter which personal device we use. We can get instant tickets to events without having to wait for a ticket window.
As the Nasdaq report on mobile apps said, we no longer have to waste those precious 30 seconds while we swipe a card and wait for the slip of paper to print.
But to a thief, every new convenience is an opportunity.
In the old days, you would have to worry about the guy with the skills to reach in your pocket and yank out your billfold. With sleight of hand, he would give it immediately to a colleague who would pass it to another.
Today, he is invisible and he flings your entire bank account thousands of miles in an instant.
To protect yourself, all you have to do is hang on tight to something you can't see.
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