6 Ways to Protect Yourself
Our shopping habits put us at greater risk for identity theft during the holidays. We’re doing more shopping online, using our debit cards more frequently, and even applying for new lines of credit to snap up special offers. This all leads to one thing: greater exposure to identity thieves.
Not to mention, we’re busy — and distracted. “It’s easy during the holidays to get sidetracked because you are rushing around trying to keep up with work, school, kids, parties, gifts, and the whole holiday hustle and bustle,” says Alexis Moore, author of Cyber Self-Defense and founder of the nonprofit Survivors In Action. “And predators are hoping you do get sidetracked. That opens the door for them to steal your identity with the click of a mouse.”
The threat of identity theft is real, but you don’t have to fall into a frenzy. It just takes awareness to stay safe. Here are six tips to avoid becoming a victim.
Avoid Using Debit Cards
If you’re paying with plastic, try sticking to credit. “A variety of debit-fraud schemes have been exposed lately and I’ve just never believed that using a payment function directly linked to your bank account balance was a good idea,” says Ike Devji, an asset protection attorney in Phoenix.
“Using credit cards, even if you pay them off in full at the end of the month, reduces your exposure significantly and provides an opportunity to dispute charges that are not yours; get purchase protection for loss, theft, or damage with some cards; and even have recourse against dishonest retailers with shoddy or undelivered products,” Devji says. Putting that one step between your checking account and identity thieves can make all the difference.
If you don’t like credit cards, consider using a prepaid debit card that won’t provide potential thieves with your personal information or access to your bank account.
Secure Your Credit Cards
While credit cards are safer than debit cards, they still carry some risk. For instance, identity thieves may use cell phone cameras to inconspicuously take a photo of your credit card in a store so they can use your card number later. And with skimming devices, thieves can “skim” the information off a credit card’s magnetic strip — even if it’s in your wallet.
Rather than keeping all your credit cards in your wallet, take “only the credit cards you know you will use on a specific? day,” says Harrine Freeman, a financial expert and owner of H.E. Freeman Enterprises. Freeman also recommends keeping your credit card in your front pocket or sock, and wrapping cards in aluminum foil or a credit card sleeve, which can block the RFID transmission used in skimming. “Beware of people who stand close to you or who lean against you on the side where your wallet or purse is held,” she says.
Don’t Click Strange Links
Last holiday season, many people received a text claiming they’d won a $1,000 Best Buy gift card. The text directed them to go to a Web page and enter a code. Those lured to the website, which was not affiliated with Best Buy, were asked to provide personal information, including name, address, email address, phone number, and date of birth. That personal information, in many cases, was enough to steal consumers’ identities.
Such fake “leaked ad” sites “attempt to take advantage of consumers looking to snag a great Black Friday deal,” says Andrea Eldridge, CEO and co-founder of Nerds On Call, an on-site computer and laptop repair service. But those who visit the sites often become victims, either by entering personal information or downloading fake coupons that install malware and viruses on their computers to steal personal information.
According to Scambook, an online complaint resolution site, scammers also use virus-embedded videos and e-cards sent from fake Twitter accounts or through phishing emails in order to infect unsuspecting users with malware. Hover your cursor over links to see the true destination address and never click links in unsolicited communications.
Choose Shopping Sites Carefully
A recent McAfee study showed that 56 percent of Americans plan to use their smartphones to shop online this holiday season. Be aware before you tap. For example, Google results can include dummy websites created to lure shoppers with great deals in order to infect their computers with malware and collect personal information and credit card numbers.
Once you arrive at a site, “make sure it is legitimate and not a fake site,” says Robert Siciliano, a Boston-based identity theft expert. After a website loads, look for these four things:
1. Correct name. Check to make sure the correct name of the site you want appears in the address bar. Some scammers develop fake websites with URLs that are very similar to trusted sites.
2. Secure address. If a site is secure, the Web address often starts with https instead of http, which indicates that encryption is being done to protect your information. Sometimes the “s” shows up only when you get to a sign-in or payment page.
3. Lock symbol. Also, look for a lock symbol on the page, another indication that the site is using encryption, Siciliano says.
4. Security symbol. Look for a security seal, such as the McAfee SECURE™ trustmark, indicating that the site has been scanned and veried as secure by a trusted third party.
If you want to double-check a site, you can also enter its URL into the SSLTool certificate checker to verify whether the site has a valid SSL certificate. SSL, which stands for Secure Sockets Layer, is the standard security technology for establishing an encrypted link between a Web server and a browser. This link ensures all data passed between the Web server and browsers remains private and integral.
Be Smart About Your Smartphone
If you use a smartphone, make sure you have a passcode or other lock on it “so thieves cannot access apps you use to make purchases if you lose your phone,” Reese says. And don’t save receipts on your phone or on public computer hard drives; if they get into the wrong hands, thieves can steal personal information from them.
If you use your smartphone or tablet to pay bills, conduct banking, or shop online, refrain from doing so unless you’re home, at your office, or in another place with a secure Wi-Fi connection. Avoid entering private information when using an unsecured, or public, Wi-Fi network, such as those available in coffee shops or hotels, says Lynn Ballou, managing partner of Ballou Plum Wealth Advisors in Lafayette, Calif. “It's so easy to forget this when we have time between flights to a holiday destination and want to do a little online retail therapy or pay some bills while at the airport. You never know who's lurking.”
Monitor Your Account
Keep track of your bank and credit card accounts throughout the holiday season to make sure all charges line up with your spending. In addition, change your passwords frequently, and use a variety of passwords rather than the same one for every account.
“Be vigilant,” Moore says. “That means consumers need to be monitoring their own accounts, changing up passwords, and reminding yourself that you need to always STOP, VERIFY, then PAY if shopping online.” If you do find fraudulent charges, contact your bank or card issuer immediately to have your card frozen. They can issue you a new card and investigate the fraudulent charges.