Here are 6 of the safest ways to pay online and in-person (2024)

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Any time you tap, swipe or dip a credit or debit card at checkout or enter your card number online, you expose yourself to all sorts of risks, from financial fraud to identity theft. A December 2022 Nilson Report study forecasted that payment card losses, including credit and debit cards, could top $165 billion in the U.S. over the next ten years.

Both digital and physical payment methods involve a degree of risk, but knowing how to navigate them could save you money and stress. Below, CNBC Select reviews the most secure payment methods as well as ones you might want to avoid to better protect yourself while shopping.

What we'll cover

  • Safest online payment methods
  • Secure in-person payment methods
  • Riskier payment methods

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Safest online payment methods

E-commerce sales in the U.S. are expected to exceed $1.1 trillion in 2023, according to Insider Intelligence, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that online shopping-related scams are the second-most reported type of scam. So, as online payments continue to trend upward, it's critical to protect your information.

Digital wallets

Digital wallets like Apple Pay, Google Pay and PayPal are growing in popularity. The 2023 FIS Global Payments Report by Worldpay from FIS found that digital wallets are now the leading e-commerce payment method in North America, accounting for 32% of all online transactions. And for good reason: Digital wallets offer many layers of security like encryption technology, passcodes, biometric security, and tokenization.

Tokenization offers improved security by essentially taking all the sensitive card information and replacing it with a one-time use "token" which is what is provided during the transaction. Even if someone intercepts your card's token, they will be unable to use it will have expired, and it contains no personal information rendering it useless to the perpetrator.

Credit cards

Credit cards are the next most popular online payment method, with the average American having four credit cards. Credit cards offer features like encryption and fraud protection to help keep your personal information secure. In addition, credit card users are protected by federal law and can only be liable for up to $50 on fraudulent chargers.

For example, the Citi Simplicity® Card, one of CNBC Select's top no annual fee credit cards for balance transfers, offers $0 liability on unauthorized charges and access to the ID Theft Protection program by Mastercard.

Citi Simplicity® Card

On Citi's secure site

  • Rewards

    None

  • Welcome bonus

    None

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% Intro APR for 21 months on balance transfers from date of first transfer and 0% Intro APR for 12 months on purchases from date of account opening.

  • Regular APR

    19.24% - 29.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    There is an intro balance transfer fee of 3% of each transfer (minimum $5) completed within the first 4 months of account opening. After that, your fee will be 5% of each transfer (minimum $5).

  • Foreign transaction fee

    3%

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See rates and fees. Terms apply. Read our Citi Simplicity® Card review.

Many major credit card issuers now also let you request randomly generated virtual card numbers to further protect yourself when shopping online. For example, those with a Capital One card, such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, can request a virtual credit card number through the browser extension Eno. The virtual card numbers are merchant-specific and you can lock, unlock or delete them at any time.

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Learn More

  • Rewards

    5 Miles per dollar on hotel and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, 2X miles per dollar on every other purchase

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 75,000 bonus miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening

  • Annual fee

    $95

  • Intro APR

    N/A for purchases and balance transfers

  • Regular APR

    19.99% - 29.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    $0at the Transfer APR, 4% of the amount of each transferred balance that posts to your account at a promotional APR that Capital One may offer to you

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

Terms apply.

ACH payments

The Automated Clearing House (ACH) is a federally-regulated electronic network that facilitates money transfers from one bank to another. All U.S. banks can use ACH, and all you need to receive a transfer this way is a bank account and routing number. If you've ever received your paycheck via direct deposit, you've taken advantage of the ACH network.

ACH payments go through clearinghouses that enforce strict regulations, making it a secure payment method. ACH also typically offers lower fees because it's all digital and eliminates many of the processing fees associated with cards or checks.

Secure in-person payment methods

The financial services industry has made strides in making in-person transactions more secure, so it's important to keep up with the latest security features.

Contactless payment options

Contactless payments, such as tap-to-pay credit cards and mobile wallets, allow you to make safe, touch-free in-person payments using near-field communication (NFC) technology. This method utilizes tokenization to ensure that each transaction has a unique one-time use code to prevent counterfeit fraud and ensures that no customer data is part of the transaction.

Most newly issued and renewed credit and debit cards now include contactless technology. For example, all newly-issued Wells Fargo consumer credit and debit cards, such as the Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card, and almost all Chase cards, such as the Chase Freedom Unlimited®, are contactless.

Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card

On Wells Fargo's secure site

  • Rewards

    Unlimited 2% cash rewards on purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn a $200 cash rewards bonus after spending $500 in purchases in the first 3 months

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and qualifying balance transfers; balance transfers made within 120 days qualify for the intro rate

  • Regular APR

    20.24%, 25.24%, or 29.99% Variable APR

  • Balance transfer fee

    3% intro for 120 days from account opening then BT fee of up to 5%, min: $5

  • Foreign transaction fee

    3%

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See rates and fees, terms apply.

Chase Freedom Unlimited®

  • Rewards

    Enjoy 4.5% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery services, 6.5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, our premier rewards program that lets you redeem rewards for cash back, travel, gift cards and more; and 3% cash back on all other purchases (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year). After your first year or $20,000 spent, enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

  • Welcome bonus

    INTRO OFFER: Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% for the first 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers

  • Regular APR

    20.49% - 29.24% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    Intro fee of either$5or3%of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater, on transfers made within 60 days of account opening. After that, either$5or5%of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.

  • Foreign transaction fee

    3%

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

  • Member FDIC. Terms apply.

Read our Chase Freedom Unlimited® review.

You can check to see if your card is contactless by looking for a wave-like symbol on the front of your card.

Chip-enabled credit cards

When contactless payments are not an option, consider using a chip-and-PIN credit card, also called an EMV-enabled credit card. Instead of swiping your credit card to make a payment, you dip your card into the payment terminal instead. Sometimes, you may even be prompted to enter a PIN to verify card ownership.

Credit cards that have a built-in EMV chip reduce fraud through tokenization. Chip cards generate unique codes for every transaction to better protect sensitive card data. Chip cards also also much harder to clone than magnetic stripe cards.

Many of the top rewards credit cards are equipped with EMV chip technology. For example, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is a great pick for safe grocery shopping, offering 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%) and a built-in chip.

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

On the American Express secure site

  • Rewards

    6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%), 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions, 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations, 3% cash back on transit (including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more) and 1% cash back on other purchases. Cash Back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit on Amazon.com at checkout.

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn a $250 statement credit after you spend $3,000 in eligible purchases on your new Card within the first 6 months.

  • Annual fee

    $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95.

  • Intro APR

    0% for 12 months on purchases from the date of account opening

  • Regular APR

    19.24% - 29.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    Either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.

  • Foreign transaction fee

    2.7%

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See rates and fees,terms apply.

eChecks

Electronic checks, or eChecks, are very similar to ACH payments and even use the same ACH network, but there are slight differences. An eCheck is essentially a digital version of a check but is commonly used for one-time expenditures while ACH payments are often for reoccurring things such as rent payments. eChecks also can garner higher fees as there is more behind-the-scenes work required compared to ACH payments.

Electronic checks are inherently safer than physical checks as they cannot be lost or stolen, and any eCheck also gains the encryption provided by the ACH as well as the ability to reverse your payments under certain circ*mstances.

Riskier payment methods

While no payment method is perfect, there are a few that are significantly riskier than others.

Cash

Some people prefer using cash over cards because they believe they may be conscious of their spending. However, using cash can be highly risky. Cash can be easily stolen or lost and difficult to trace. Cash also provides no warranties or purchase protection that some credit cards or other payment methods offer.

In addition to the risks, when using cash, you also miss opportunities to earn valuable credit card rewards and build your credit score.

Debit cards

Debit cards are a step above cash in terms of security, but are still a relatively risky payment method. Debit cards could leave you liable for funds lost to fraud, provide criminals direct access to your bank accounts, expose you to overdraft fees and risk tying up your money in hold charges.

While there are a few instances when paying with debit over credit is useful, it's not as secure as other payment methods and shouldn't be relied on regularly.

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For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, click here.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.

Here are 6 of the safest ways to pay online and in-person (2024)
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