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When you think about the security of your credit and debit cards, consider the facts on the ground.

Industry representatives readily admit that thieves are often one step ahead of them and that data breaches are a fact of life. One bank went rogue and publicly called out MasterCard and Bank of America for not sharing information and for failing to stem card fraud fast enough in Chicago taxicabs.

Now a for-profit college, sensing opportunity, has found its own angle. Monroe College is pitching a minor in cybersecurity. Its ad on New York subways features a woman in a white coat holding a card that intersects with beams of light. Perhaps she’ll invent a way to solve the payments industry’s problems.

Until then, you have to help yourself. Most card companies already have custom alerts and other features that not enough consumers use. Then there’s something that all cards should have but most don’t — an on/off switch accessible from a mobile app that could keep most fraud from happening. Finally, there are the microchip cards that most of the rest of the civilized world uses but barely exist in the United States so far.

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Let’s take them in order.

Alerts and other tools

Whether you’re using a debit or credit card, there are all sorts of ways to limit the damage a thief might do or at least get a quick warning that one is on the loose.

Capital One offers a number of alerts, for example, when a customer’s balance goes above or below a set amount that the customer sets, when a charge occurs above or below a certain amount.

Citibank can ping you if you’re within a set distance from your credit limit. Chase will text you if its systems detect an unusual charge and let you reject it on the spot.

The on/off switch

If people turned their debit or credit cards on before each charge and then turned them off again before returning the plastic to the wallet, it would be a lot harder for thieves to do their work.

This technology exists. A company called Malauzai Software built an on/off switch after one of its bank customers sought a solution to the amount of time its representatives were spending on the phone with people whose debit cards had vanished.

Malauzai obliged, but it soon discovered that fraud-wary customers were turning the cards on and off before and after every charge.

“The fraud-prevention thing was gravy on top of the mashed potatoes,” said Robb Gaynor, Malauzai’s co-founder and chief product officer. “It was unexpected.”

Chip cards

The U.S. is such a fraud-friendly country in part because we still use old-fashioned magnetic stripes on the back of our cards.

At long last, retailers and banks and the companies that process their payments are preparing to begin to possibly get their acts together on this front.

Over the next 18 months, more debit- and credit-card issuers will issue plastic with a microchip inside that will transmit a unique code each time you use it in person.

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