Protect Yourself from ID Theft this Holiday Season and All Year
The holidays are a time to spend with family, to celebrate, and to give and receive gifts. However, the holidays are also a time that identity thieves decide to get their own gifts: the identity and credit of unsuspecting victims.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported that there are almost 10 million incidents of ID theft and fraud each year and the average victim spends $500 and 30 hours to resolve each occurrence of identity theft.
Don't let ID thieves ruin your holiday cheer. Be smart this holiday season and take these steps to protect yourself.
Avoiding ID Theft When You Are Out Holiday Shopping
Whether you are shopping for that special gift or grabbing those post-holiday bargains, malls and other shopping centers are prime spots for lurking ID thieves.
HPK Legal offers advice for protecting your identity while holiday shopping. When out in the malls this holiday season (or any time of the year), be sure to:
- Protect your purse or wallet: Don't let pickpockets get your personal information by stealing your license and credit cards from open handbags or a wallet in your back pocket.
- Only bring what you need: Only bring your driver's license and the credit cards you intend to use with you to the store. Don't shop with extra cards or personal identification (like your passport or Social Security card).
- Watch out for "shoulder surfers": Thieves may try to get your information by taking a picture of your credit card or writing down the information they can see during your transaction. We sure to cover your credit card number and other private information from prying eyes.
- Use secure ATMs: Free-standing ATMs may be targets for thieves who use skimmers to steal your information. Use ATMs in bank lobbies or other secure locations with video surveillance. Also, any time you use your ATM card (either to withdrawal cash or to make a purchase) shield your PIN number and card number from others.
- Not let your guard down: Identity thieves come in all shapes and sizes. Just because someone doesn't fit your idea of what an ID thief may look like, don't assume your information is safe. Many scammers rely on their appearance to put you at ease — don't fall for it.
Protecting Your Identity during Online Transactions
With the ease of online shopping, you may buy your holiday gifts online, but you need to be careful. As technology gets more advanced, identity thieves get more creative with how they try to steal your identity.
Consumer advocate Denise Richardson offers tips for safely shopping online this holiday season, including:
- Look for a secure connection: It is important to check the web address (or URL) of a website when you are shopping online. When you enter the buying section (or shopping cart) of the website, be sure the URL begins with https (as opposed to http). The "s" indicates that you are on a secure website. Any time you enter your personal information, be sure you see the https at the beginning of the URL.
- Beware of email viruses and spam: Using the knowledge that many people send gifts during the holidays, online criminals send emails that appear to be from FedEx, UPS, or the postal service. These emails often have attachments regarding a delivery status, but the attachments are actually viruses that infect your computer and steal your personal information. Other holiday email scams include fake digital greeting cards or links that appear to be from a friend. Don't open any attachments until you run them through a virus scan.
- Don't shop on a public computer or public wireless network: You cannot verify the security of a public computer or wi-fi network. Some may be infected with spyware that records each keystroke entered. So, even if you are using your own laptop on an unsecured public network, you could be giving ID thieves your credit card information.
- Make sure your antivirus and anti-spyware software is up to date: Online criminals are constantly updating their methods to steal your personal information. To effectively catch and stop viruses and spyware, your virus protection software needs to be up to date, so be sure to download the latest updates.
- Be smart with your passwords: Don't choose easy-to-guess passwords or PINs. Be sure you create a strong, unique password (the best passwords combine upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols) for each account that is not tied to something about you (like a birthday or anniversary). Also, frequently change your passwords. That way, if an ID thief is able to steal your password, you will change it before too much damage is done.
- Use merchants you have used before: It can be tempting to shop at a new online store to get the holiday bargains. However, if you are not familiar with an online retailer and you cannot find reputable sources that have done business with this online store, you are better off looking elsewhere. Fraudulent websites could be setup to take your money or worse — your personal information.
Other Tips to Prevent Holiday Identity Theft
In addition to the above tips, there are other ways you can protect yourself from ID theft during the holidays, including:
- Use credit cards instead of debit cards: According to John Sileo from Divine Caroline, you should not use your debit card or checks for your holiday transactions because these forms of payment are directly linked to your bank account. Credit cards are not linked directly to your bank account, so any fraud will not drain your funds. Also, credit cards typically have a larger window (90 days as opposed to 30 days) to report fraud.
- Don't leave wallet or laptop in trunk or other exposed location: Putting your purse, laptop, or even personal mail in your trunk do not protect you from ID thieves. In fact, thieves will often check glove boxes and trunks for personal information and valuables.
- Leave your Social Security card at home: There is no need to carry your Social Security card in your wallet or purse. You also shouldn't need your Social Security Number for most holiday shopping. The FTC warns that you should guard your Social Security Number and only use it when absolutely necessary. (See the FTC website for specific tips.)
- Know the signs of ID theft: The FTC warns to be on the lookout for signs of identity theft, including: new accounts you didn't open; inaccurate or fraudulent information on your credit report; not receiving your regular bills; receiving credit cards you didn't apply for; and being denied credit (or given less favorable financing terms) when you have always had good credit.
Utilize Credit Monitoring to Catch ID Theft before It's Too Late
With all of the activities surrounding the holidays, it may be difficult for you to track your credit cards and personal accounts. This may be the best time to enroll in a credit monitoring service.
Credit monitoring services will — for a fee — monitor your credit reports for activity and alert you if there are changes to your accounts. Because each credit monitoring company has different methods, be sure you understand what you are signing up for. Some companies monitor all three credit bureaus; others only monitor one bureau — these differences can affect the price.
The FTC encourages you to "check out the company with your local Better Business Bureau, consumer protection agency and state Attorney General to see if they have any complaints on file" before signing up with a credit monitoring service.
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