Credit Card Crooks Like to Shop at Best Buy, Target, Amazon

Other favorites: Best Buy and HomeDepot, which sell expensive electronics and appliances that can easily be resold; and of course, Apple Stores with their hugely popular iPods and iPhones.

"Apple stores have a real problem, because everyone loves Apple right now," says one source, who did not want to be named. "If everyone loves it, then thieves love it too."

Interestingly, credit card fraudsters also love tickets -- for flights, concerts or sports games -- because they can be shipped by e-mail from an anonymous e-mail account.

Criminals have many ways to get their hands on stolen credit cards.

A small minority still snatch purses and run off to the nearest store to make a large purchase before the card is cancelled.

Most criminals, however, prefer to steal the account information associated with a card, and then use it to either to emboss a new card and load the information into the magnetic strip; or simply make an online purchase where the actual card doesn't have to be presented.

The information on the magnetic strip can be stolen in many different ways. Crooked waiters or sales clerks sometimes have their own swiping machines that they'll run your card through while you're making a legitimate purchase. Hackers break into banks' databases.

The crooks who stole the cards aren't necessarily the same ones who make the purchases. Organized crime rings have spread around the world with the mission of buying and selling credit card account data.

Eye Drops and Formula

"The card is stolen in the U.S., details are transmitted to somewhere in Asia and 20 copies are produced and used in the name of Mr. So-and-So from Massachusetts," says Joshua Bamfield, director of the U.K.-based Centre for Retail Research and publisher of the annual Global Retail Theft Barometer.

Retailers are fighting back with increasingly sophisticated technology. FICO, the same company that keeps track of consumers' credit scores, sells one of the most widely used fraud detection programs. By analyzing individuals' shopping patterns, the software can often detect if the card is being used in an unusual manner. That's why you will sometimes receive a phone call from your credit card company if you try to use the card while on vacation abroad or if you suddenly acquire a taste for sapphires.

To circumvent these programs, fraudsters will often shop at popular chain or grocery stores.

"Criminals trying to buy things that are more typical for consumers," says Mike Urban, senior director of fraud solutions at FICO. "Grocery store purchases go under the radar."

Surprisingly, many grocery basics, such as baby formula and eye drops sell like hot cakes on the black market.

Gift cards can also be stolen very effectively, because they don't leave behind a trail. By transferring funds from a stolen credit card onto a gift card, criminals buy themselves time to shop at their leisure.

"Gift cards extend the life of a credit card," says NRF's LaRocca. "When you buy a $1,000 American Express gift card, the purchases you make on it are not linked to you. Before someone makes the connection you now have weeks to use it."

Tips for Consumers

Know your rights. Under federal law, you're not liable for more than $50 of fraudulent charges on your credit card as long as you report the problem promptly.

Watch for imposters who ask you to "verify" your account number. Your real credit card issuer already has your account number.

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