Tips to Protect Your Identity During the Holidays

Identity theft is a problem any time of the year, even during the holiday season. While consumers are focused on giving during the holidays, the crooks are focused on taking. Having your access to credit suspended or compromised during the largest shopping season of the year puts a damper on anyone's good cheer.  Here are tips on how to avoid identity theft during the holiday season.

  • Have a constant awareness of your surroundings. The sidewalks and malls will be crowded, and shoppers will be distracted, the perfect combination for a pick-pocket. If someone bumps into you, don't assume it was an accident. Clutch your purse close to your side or in front of you, and keep your wallet hidden at the bottom, or for men, in an inside coat pocket.
  • Don't carry large sums of cash. If you choose not to charge your purchases, using a debit card may be right for you. Be aware, however, that certain protections are put in place when you make a purchase with a credit card that is not provided with a debit card. This is a good time of year to call your credit card issuer and become familiar with that perk. Furthermore, when you use a credit card, you can dispute a purchase before paying for it. With a debit card, the money is removed from your account at the time of the purchase. A thief can wipe out your checking or savings account before you ever realize the theft has taken place.
  • Guard your PIN number at the ATM. If you choose to pay with cash, yet do not want to carry large amounts of money on your person, it is likely that you'll be making frequent trips to the ATM. Be aware of anyone lurking around the machine, and if someone is standing too close to you, simply ask them to step back. However, people aren't your only concern at the ATM. Thieves can install devices that read your information without you knowing it. If you notice anything unusual about the ATM, use a different one, and report what you've seen to the bank.
  • Don't let your credit card out of your sight. Unscrupulous clerks or waiters can skim the information from your card into a second machine and later make a new credit card for themselves. Worse yet, they can sell your information to an organized crime ring.
  • Reconcile your receipts when dining out. Incidents have been reported of waiters increasing their tip amounts by adding numbers or decimal places to receipts. Check to make sure your receipts match up with your bank statements.
  • Lighten your wallet. Remove anything from your wallet that you don't absolutely need to have with you. That way, if someone is successful in stealing it, they won't get as much.
  • Be safe when shopping online. Criminals can make dummy websites look like the real thing. Make sure that the website you are shopping on is the company's real website. If you have any doubt, conduct a new browser search and contact the company to verify. Also make sure that any website you make purchases on is secure. Secure websites will have "https" instead of "http" in the website URL.
  • Never carry your Social Security card with you, but check other cards that might use your SS# as an identifier. If you're not going to be using your checkbook, leave it in a safe place at home.
  • Make copies of your credit cards. Copy both sides of all your cards. If you lose your wallet, you'll have easy access to all of your account numbers and Customer Service phone numbers, allowing you to alert the issuer immediately.
  • Keep up with all receipts. Not only will you need them to make returns easily, but crooks are very interested in stealing the information they contain. Never stuff the receipts into your car visor or leave them exposed in any way. Thieves would much rather have your receipts than any gifts you've purchased.
  • Open your credit card statements as soon as they arrive. Check the bill for any unauthorized purchases. Even better, keep a watchful eye on your accounts by going online and reviewing your accounts each week. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, report it immediately to your bank. Doing so will likely remove any payment responsibility you might have for fraudulent purchases.
  • Secure all personal information even while at home. Unfortunately, many times an identity thief is someone we know. During the holidays, you may have guests in your home. Remove temptation by putting personal information out of sight.
  • Consider signing up for a credit monitoring service. Such services alert you via email anytime there is an inquiry or other activity to your credit report. In other words, if someone tries to open an account in your name, you'll know about it. Such services are offered by all of the major credit reporting bureaus, and could be money well-spent.
  • Be careful when logging in from the road. Never use an internet café computer to check your email, do online banking, or enter any personal information such as your payment card information. Internet café computers have been used by many people and likely have malware in them. Compromising your email and account credentials could let a hacker get into your online banking site by resetting the password. Entering sensitive information when using a public Wi-Fi connection can also place your information at risk. Make sure to use an encrypted internet connection before completing any of the above tasks listed above.
  • Order your credit report. To obtain a free credit report from the three credit reporting agencies go to www.annualcreditreport.com. You can also order a copy by going to myFICO.com.

Information obtained from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

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