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Shoulder Surfing 101

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MoneyTips

Do you know who's lurking over your shoulder? They might be trying to get a peek at your financial information.

What is Shoulder Surfing?

Shoulder surfing is when a would-be thief spies over your shoulder while you're using your financial data. They're not just nosy they're trying to get a peak, so they can steal your details for their own purposes.

Shoulder surfing can happen any time that your financial information could be visible or audible to others. Here are some common scenarios that are golden opportunities for shoulder surfers:

  • Keying in your PIN at the ATM or a bank teller
  • Using your debit or credit card and PIN to pay for a point-of-sale transaction in a store
  • Paying for gas at the pump
  • Signing into a banking app or website using a debit or credit card number or a username and password on a mobile device
  • Giving your details to someone verbally in person or over the phone

Justin Lavelle, Chief Communications Officer for online background check platform BeenVerified explains, "The thief performs the act in one of two ways: by looking over the victim's shoulder or from a longer distance through the use of an aid (binoculars, hidden camera, or secret microphone) to help them collect this information without the need to be close to the victim. Places which are crowded are used most often for these types of activities because they allow the thief to shoulder surf the victim without being noticed."

The fact that everyone always has their phone out makes shoulder surfing even easier. You never know who could be taking a covert snap or video when you pull out your credit card.

How Common is Shoulder Surfing?

There are no official stats on the prevalence of shoulder surfing in the U.S., but studies suggest it's more common than you might think.

A 2016 survey conducted by Memon, Papadopoulos, Durmus, and Nguyen (reported in Science Daily) found that 73% of respondents who use a mobile device reported having observed (whether accidentally or not) someone else's PIN at some point. Another study discussed in the same article reported that 97% of people surveyed were aware of a shoulder surfing incident in day-to-day life.

For most of us, it's easy to think of examples when we could have peeked or eavesdropped on someone conducting a financial transaction if we wanted to. Imagine all the opportunities that exist for people with real malicious intent!

How You Can Protect Yourself

It's impossible to completely avoid the threat of shoulder surfing without becoming a hermit. However, there are precautions you can take.

To prevent the likelihood of falling victim to shoulder surfers, Lavelle recommends staying aware of your surroundings. "Find a quiet spot, outside a crowded area, where you can sit and conduct private business, preferably with your back to a wall. Refrain from conducting personal or financial matters in public. Do not verbally confirm passwords, security codes, or other personal information publicly and over the phone."

It's also important to be careful when conducting ATM transactions. "If someone is standing too close behind you at the ATM, if possible, go inside and complete your transaction," advises Lavelle. Further, he says it's best to "wait until your ATM transaction has been completed and the screen is back to its standard greeting before you leave the machine."

Steven J.J. Weisman, the cyber security expert behind the book Identity Theft Alert and the blog scamicide.com recommends taking a couple of simple precautions when using your debit and credit cards: "Shielding the PIN pad as you enter your PIN and entering your credit card number or password away from peering eyes is a good way to avoid this [shoulder surfing] becoming a problem."

You can also get screen protectors for your laptop, tablet, and phone. These protectors make it difficult for onlookers to see what you're doing. Dennis Chow, Chief Information Security Officer of SCIS Security adds, "In lieu of a privacy screen, consider turning down the brightness of your phone to an acceptable reading level for your eyes instead of keeping it at the highest possible contrast."

Key Takeaways

Shoulder surfing is when someone views, hears, or records your financial information with malicious intent. Opportunities for shoulder surfers are rampant, so learning to protect yourself is essential. Staying aware of your surroundings, shielding your PIN, avoiding sharing sensitive data in public, and protecting your device screens are best practices for thwarting the efforts of shoulder surfers.

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