As you gear up for the busiest shopping time of the year, managing your money involves more than just setting and sticking to a budget.
Thieves, knowing that the holidays make us distracted shoppers, are just waiting for you to make the slightest slip-up that allows them to access your finances. That explains the 22 percent spike in holiday ID theft from 2016 to 2017.
Couple this with the fact that 53 percent of all holiday shopping now happens online (a hacker’s paradise!) and the odds are pretty good that even the wisest of us might make our wallets a little more vulnerable this time of year.
So take a break from raking leaves, grab a turkey leg, or settle in with some pumpkin pie and let’s dig into steps we can take to spend safely this holiday season.
Be Vigilant Online
An Experian survey of those who experienced holiday identity theft indicated that 43 percent of the theft occurred while online shopping. Specifically, 16 percent of that theft occurred on Cyber Monday.
Clearly, this the season for cybercrime.
Most of us are probably familiar with basic online shopping tips, but being SUPER vigilant this time of year means taking it up a notch:
- Type in the web address instead of clicking on a link
- Only make purchases on sites that are secure, like those that have “https” in the URL or that have an icon of a lock before the URL
- Don’t conduct business over public Wi-Fi, including signing in to any sites or apps
- Be wary of inbox deals that seem too good to be true; they probably are, and they are probably phishing scams
These may seem like common sense tips, but our stressed-out, holiday-frazzled brains sometimes take shortcuts during this busy time of year. Stay alert and trust your gut.
Maintain Your Personal Space and Info
If you brave an actual shopping trip out into the throngs of frenzied consumerism, beware of those that are keeping a close eye on your transactions. These people stand just a little too close, trying to see your PIN as you type it into the keypad.
Or they are overly interested in whatever item is on display next to the area where you are applying for that new store credit card or club membership. They like to lurk around ATMs.
If you feel someone is standing too close, ask him or her for space. This will let them know you are aware of them and their actions, and they will move on to someone less suspecting.
If you must use an ATM, keep your head on a swivel and shield the keypad. Ask a friend to keep watch, if you can.
If you can avoid it, never say personal information aloud. If a cashier must have your info for a membership or marketing program, or you are signing up for new credit, try to use the text function on your phone to show the information and then quickly erase it. And of course, carefully guard the screen!
Use Those Credit Cards
For so many reasons, credit cards are the way to go when it comes to lessening the sting of identity theft. Credit cards offer better fraud protection, including reduced liability for you, generally limited to $50. You also avoid having your personal funds drained and the potential wait to get that money back (if you can).
Of course, using a debit card also comes with that whole PIN entry dilemma we just covered. Both credit cards and debit cards are still exposed to the threat of skimmers, which are devices that thieves attach to card readers so they can copy and duplicate your card information, but credit cards offer more time to report a theft and you don’t have to worry about going weeks without funds and potential overdrafts to your account.
Bottom line: leave the debit card at home, use credit, and check for skimmers.
An Ounce of Prevention
The easiest way to combat identity theft is proactively taking steps to prevent it in the first place.
Luckily, many banks and credit cards offer tools to monitor your accounts and alert you to any potentially fraudulent activities. Take advantage of these resources to provide an extra layer of security.
Also, keep an eye on your monthly statements or log in to your online accounts weekly or daily (from a secured Wi-Fi connection, of course). Actively managing your accounts will help you catch identity theft as it happens, and may even help you keep on top of your holiday budget.
You can take prevention a step further by asking the credit bureaus to put a freeze on your credit. This blocks thieves from opening new accounts in your name, regardless of whatever personal information they may possess.
If It Happens…
Your first steps should be to contact your creditors and the credit bureaus to alert them to the fraud and stop it from progressing. You will most likely need to freeze your credit and place a fraud alert on your accounts.
The Federal Trade Commission offers a consumer-friendly site to walk you through a checklist of fraud recovery, including how to address specific types of fraud and identity theft.
Finally, if you have a financial advisor or planner, talk to her or him about identity theft. They can help you put preventative measures in place, as well as create a plan of action in case it should ever happen to you.