Sinead Ryan: It's estimated that 140 million credit cards are skimmed every year. How safe is yours?
Earlier this month the White House admitted to a massive security breach which saw 21.5m Americans have their social security numbers, fingerprints, health and financial records swiped from Government computer systems dating back more than 15 years.
In a separate incident the previous month, 4.2m federal employees found their personal details had been compromised. In both cases a Chinese team of hackers was thought to be responsible for what were termed 'technical vulnerabilities' and Barack Obama vowed to track down those who managed to penetrate the high security walls of the systems involved.
Good luck to him, but where does that leave the humble supermarket shopper handing over their credit card at the checkout, or the holidaymaker downloading the latest novel from Amazon or the person bagging a bargain on eBay? Are they even similar and how can you possibly protect yourself if the biggest and most well-resourced Government in the world cannot?
Pat Phelan's answer is to only ever use a pre-paid, disposable credit card for online purchases and never give out more details than are absolutely necessary to make an e-purchase. For the Chief Executive of Trustev, an Irish company dedicated to helping online merchants protect their systems from hackers, the former butcher from Cork takes no chances. "I live in New York now where our offices are, and with everything I know I've still had my credit card skimmed; it's happened to me three times already."
Credit cards are big money - for fraudsters. "You can buy someone's details for around $9 and if you want the CCV security code included at the back, it'll cost you $15," he says of the nefarious operators in the 'dark internet space'.
Phelan never allows his card out of his sight and insists the swipe machine is brought to his table in restaurants. He refuses to sign paper slips, "There's no need to anymore," and uses a secondary card "with a small limit" on it for online purchases. And this from the guy who is the policeman of internet shopping.
Even though customers are completely covered with MasterCard or Visa's Chargeback systems, merchants are not.
It's estimated 140m cards are skimmed every year, reset into 'blank' cards in the customer's name and immediately made available, ironically, online, to buy for purchases in mobile phone shops, auction sites and other instant purchases.
Phelan's tip is never to give out any more information than needed to an online retailer - "They need your name, address and payment, that's it." Asking for things like date of birth, personal data or your shopping preferences is unnecessary. "Dunnes Stores don't ask you all that when you're in their shop, so why should an online retailer?"
Another option is to use a pre-pay credit card. These are pre-loaded and used exactly like a credit card, but with no chance of it being skimmed. They are offered by 02, 3V and Payzone.
Fraud aside, there are other implications when shopping online. Hidden taxes and charges abound so sometimes a bargain isn't really a bargain. If you're shopping within the EU, VAT has to be taken into account in the website pricing (Ireland has one of the highest rates) and it's vital to include shipping costs in the total cost.
There are no shopping rights once you step outside the EU borders, however. Additional costs like Excise and customs duties, countervailing fees and insurance all bump up the price (see table). If you don't like what you get, you'd better rely on the site's own consumer protections. Always buy from known, reputable sites and make sure to check their shipping and returns policy.