As the higher-ups from Target, Neiman Marcus and other high-profile companies testify about recent security breaches involving customer financial data, I get the sense I dodged a bullet.

As the higher-ups from Target, Neiman Marcus and other high-profile companies testify about recent security breaches involving customer financial data, I get the sense I dodged a bullet.

Buying local during the holidays kept me out of the violated box stores. Having less money for techno-robbers to steal simply adds to my sense of personal security.

Sometimes, I do make use of my debit card. And when I do, I must enter my personal identification number, or PIN. I have to type the number into a keypad in public where strangers lurk. Opportunities, therefore, do exist for creepy, criminally minded people to observe me using my PIN.

Since the moment I opened the non-descript envelope sent from out-of-state and called the 800-number to activate my first debit card, I have operated under the assumption that the person behind me on the checkout line wants my secret, personal, private, classified number. I have never carried my PIN in my wallet with my debit card. I have never shared it with anyone.

But when I’m paying for my groceries or a book of stamps, there are always potential criminals hovering around my transactions. That is why I take precautions. Over the years, I’ve developed an arsenal of moves to protect the secrecy of my PIN.

If I’m out with a buddy, such as Hubby or one of my sons, I will use the shopping cart. Hubby or the child is charged with obtaining a new cart in which to place the bagged groceries. That way, I can keep our original cart between me and the next person in line, strategically leaving it there during the payment process.

Contemporary shopping etiquette calls for at least a cart-length and a half between the person paying and the next person in the queue. However, checkout aisles are riddled with rude shoppers. It has always amazed me how close strangers want to get when I am swiping my debit card.

If you are closer to me than the cashier, you are too close. If I can see you in the reflection of my bifocals while trying to remember my PIN, you are too close. If I can accurately identify the flavor of gum you are chewing, you are too close. If the strand of hair that just landed on my receipt came from your scalp, you are too close.

Proximity to the person in front of you on a checkout line does not speed up your time at the register. Rather, it could very well slow the entire process down. I’m not the only one who employs PIN security tactics. And some techniques do take time to implement.

The cart trick works well and does not increase the wait. However, the buddy system cannot always be used. Flying solo requires other, sometimes time-consuming, security methods.

One such method is the stare. When strangers get close enough to notice your PIN as well as the hangnails that emerged since putting off a much-needed manicure, making them feel uncomfortable can successfully motivate them to back off. But you have to be careful with the uncomfortable stare, as you do not want to start a bloody, checkout line brawl.

If you can feel the breath of the next person in line as you swipe your card, pause for a moment. Take your time as you read the display. Then, look toward the person behind you. Do not look directly into the person’s eyes, as this could cause the person to become defensive and angry. Rather, look just to the left of the person’s scalp.

Focusing on an out-of-place piece of hair works well. For a bald shopper, take note of the glare or a scalp wrinkle. Then, to really make an impact with the stare, you must look flustered, confused, and imposed upon—all at the same time. This is not a look you can just wing at the last minute. It takes practice in front of a mirror to perfect.

The trick to the stare working is timing. The stare must be held until the person is overcome with weird, uncomfortable feelings and compelled to create space between you and him or her. As soon as the person begins to move, you can suddenly remember your PIN and enter it into the keypad.

When the cart move is not possible and my stare is ineffective, I have two additional strategies. If I do not get an uh-oh feeling from the person trespassing upon my personal space, I will punch in random numbers, hit clear as if I were punching in more numbers, then enter my PIN. By doing so, I can confuse the potential, yet improbable identity thief.

However, if I can picture the person’s face in an online, mug shot photo gallery, I will cancel the transaction and ask the cashier to re-run it as a credit purchase. Signing my name gives away nothing to PIN-thieving shoppers.


Micki Bare is a columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau and the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, N.C., and the author of Thurston T. Turtle children’s books. She and her family live in North Carolina. Her e-mail address is