The holiday shopping season is a prime time for opportunistic thieves. Shoppers might be more susceptible to identity theft during the holidays because:
- They’re using their credit cards more.
- They’re willing to shop on unfamiliar sites to get a bargain.
- They’re shopping at stores that have thousands of seasonal or temporary employees — that might not be checked by background screening companies.
Dashlane, the popular password manager site, reported that 2.6 billion online accounts were breached last year. This means your biggest risk might not be having your purse or wallet stolen in a busy mall — it might be when data breaches expose your personal information to thieves.
Here are the best ways to protect yourself from identity theft this holiday season.
Stick With Familiar Retailers
If Amazon, Target and Best Buy all offer the same product within several dollars of each other but another retailer you’ve never heard of is offering the same product for much less, be careful.
“Stick with familiar retailers,” said Robert Siciliano, an identity theft and fraud prevention expert with BestIDTheftCompanys.com. “Unbelievably low prices are a red flag because competitors are always checking each other’s prices.”
Popular holiday products are often similarly priced among reputable companies. But some immoral companies might advertise a product at an amazingly low price to attract your attention. However, a deal that looks too good to be true probably is.
Use Caution With Public WiFi
Almost all banking institutions and webmail services use HTTPS, along with Facebook, Amazon, eBay, PayPal and many other websites. If you use your own computer on public WiFi, your information is likely secured, even if you don’t use a virtual private network (VPN) that adds security to private and public networks. However, be aware of cybersecurity risks and the importance of protecting personal information and ensure your anti-virus software is up to date.
For example, don’t use a public computer for online shopping, accessing your personal banking information or viewing secure information that might be used for identity theft. A simple and inexpensive keylogger program installed on a computer would allow anyone to access everything you typed.
Update Your Passwords
Don’t overlook this simple security measure. During the holiday season, changing your passwords can be the difference in whether a crook takes control of your account.
Here are a few reasons why your bank or credit card company might recommend changing your password or PIN number:
- If there’s suspicious activity to your account.
- If you suspect that someone you don’t trust has your password.
- If you notice something suspicious in your email account or other online accounts.
- If you have recently removed malware from your system.
Keep an eye out for the signs, and remember that the hassle of changing your password is nothing compared to the problem of having your identity stolen.
Upgrade Your Password Manager
You might forget your password frequently, but that’s no excuse to have your accounts vulnerable to being hacked. So if you use the same password for everything, it’s time to get a password manager tool.
Almost every app or subscription service involves a password to access and manage your personal information within the account. Saved information could be your credit cards, shipping addresses or billing addresses.
Services like LastPass or Dashlane will serve as an encrypted vault to protect passwords, generate unique passwords and remind you when it’s time to generate a new password. Both websites and other password manager apps offer free versions.
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Don’t Fall Victim to ‘Phishing’
Scammers will be more active this holiday season and email traffic confirming online orders and deliveries will exponentially increase. Never give out personal information online unless you initiated contact with the company.
For example, ordering online from a reputable store is typically safe. But if you receive an email asking you to go to another site to input personal information, you might be being scammed.
Also, be careful when following an email link to anything simulating the login sequence. And remember, computer security software might not necessarily protect you from clicking on these authentic-looking emails.
Don’t Fall Victim to ‘Vishing’
“Vishing” is a lot like those counterfeit emails you get from companies stating that you need to login to verify something, except in the form of a phone call or voicemail.
If you receive a message requesting your action to update your account or update your personal information, do not immediately provide the information. Hang up, search the company phone number independently, call back and verify that a real representative of the company did, in fact, contact you. Also, know what “smishing” is — the SMS-version of this type of scam.
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Watch Your Cards in Crowded Malls
Even if your transaction takes place in a store, it’s processed online. Therefore, your information is accessible to hackers, and your credit card number can be used by hackers for purchases. To protect yourself from credit card fraud, always check your statements for any unauthorized purchases.
Philip Lee, chief financial planning officer with Modera Wealth Management, recommended freezing your credit reports with the three bureaus Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. “No company — other than who you deal with — can look at your credit report,” said Lee. “Creditors will not open new accounts, so this is the best protection against someone opening an account in your name.”
Not using a debit card at all during the holiday period could be another smart option, explained Elle Kaplan, CEO of LexION Capital Management.
“Thieves can do everything from stealing your card information online to creating a duplicate at a retail store,” she said. “You have legal rights that defend you from being liable for these fraudulent charges, which is something you won’t see with a debit card.”
Be Cautious With Craigslist
Buyers and sellers on Craigslist are an unknown entity and can present a particular risk when it comes to holiday shopping. You don’t know who you’re meeting or what their motive for selling the item is. It could be counterfeit, or it could be stolen. Avoid carrying cash when you arrange a potential face-to-face transaction.
“Meet only in safe, public places,” said Siciliano. “Inform the seller you’ll first meet without any cash, just to inspect the sale item. If you want to buy it, get your money from an ATM.”
Remember that there is also no guarantee that what you buy on Craigslist is genuine or even functioning. “Similarly, don’t purchase stolen products,” added Siciliano. “Request proof of ownership or request the serial number and see if your state keeps a database of stolen items.”
The best way to protect yourself? If you can’t verify authenticity and ownership, don’t purchase the item on Craigslist.
Educate Younger Family Members
Many teens have the “it won’t happen to me” mentality and believe they are not actually at risk. But if you have teenagers in your home, know that they can expose not just themselves, but you as well.
Encourage teenagers to get a head start in protecting themselves from identity theft and educate them on how to protect their bank accounts, manage passwords and use anti-virus or other internet security software.
Give Yourself the Best Gift
Common sense goes a long way to protecting yourself, but you still might miss the many ways identity thieves take advantage and use your information.
An identity theft protection service like LifeLock can do more than just monitor your credit. It can alert you of credit file activity, unauthorized USPS address changes or submitted loan applications. Take a stand against identity theft and give yourself the gift of online ID theft protection.
Caroline Banton contributed to the reporting for this article.