The holiday season usually means more shopping, more travel, and a slew of promotional offers arriving by email, social media, and even to your doorstep. Do you know how to better protect yourself and your family from identity theft and credit fraud during this hectic time of year?
Let’s look at 15 ways to help you better safeguard your identity, your finances, and your family.
Before You Head Out: Lighten Your Load
The holidays can be a difficult time of balancing credit and spending, especially as gifts, parties, travel, and the number of visiting family and friends continues to add up. However, security experts advise consumers to choose a credit card instead of a debit card for purchases, when possible, as an added safety measure.
Debit cards are connected directly to your checking account, making them more like an electronic check that withdraws money from your account as soon as the transaction is processed. If your debit card were to be stolen or hacked, money could be drained from your account, even if temporarily. Depending on when you report the fraud to your financial institution, you could be responsible for none or all of the loss.
On the other hand, in the case of fraudulent credit card transactions, U.S. federal law limits a consumer’s liability to $50. Some credit cards go even further to offer customers zero liability protection. Here are some ways you can better protect yourself before you hit the stores:
- Tip #1 – Carry fewer cards – Streamline your wallet or purse by carrying only the card or cards you need for that outing. Safely store other cards that you don’t need to bring with you.
- Tip #2 – Know your numbers – Keep a record of your bank account and credit card numbers plus the phone numbers of the financial institutions in a secure place, so you can quickly notify banks, creditors, and the appropriate authorities in case of theft. There are also services available to store an electronic encrypted copy of the contents of your wallet.
At Checkout: Beware of Skimmers
Skimming is a method used by cybercriminals to capture information from a card holder in order to make fraudulent transactions. Skimming tactics range from simply taking a photo of your card to the more sophisticated practice of installing a skimming device onto credit card machines at stores and gas stations or at ATMs.
Even if you have the now-popular chip card, you can still become a victim of skimming.
- Tip #4 – Don’t use a credit card machine or ATM that looks like it’s been tampered with – Skimming devices are often difficult to detect. Before sliding your card into a fuel pump or ATM, study the keyboard and card reader. Does it look different then you would expect? Avoid using a machine that is loose or has visible tape or glue.
- Tip #5 – Protect Your PIN – Never give out your PIN, even to a “good Samaritan” stranger who is trying to help you with a tricky credit card machine or ATM. Use your body or hand to cover the entry of your PIN.
- Tip #6 – Choose ATMs inside a highly trafficked location – Because a skimming device has to be installed, ATMs located inside a bank or store are generally safer.
Online: Surf and Shop Safer
A quick click on that promotional link you get in your inbox is so convenient! And yet it can be so risky.
Phishing is a form of fraud in which a cybercriminal masquerades as a reputable entity and typically sends emails containing fake links or malicious attachments with the goal of stealing login credentials or other personal or financial details from their victims. In many cases, fake web sites can look incredibly convincing—mimicking a retailer’s logo, home page, and using a barely noticeable difference in URL.
What’s more, savvy cybercriminals know how to take advantage of irresistible holiday offers and hectic schedules to take advantage of their victims. The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team has warned consumers about holiday scams that could result in security breaches, identity theft, or financial loss.
- Tip #6 – Type in URLs yourself – Instead of clicking on a link directly from an email, it’s best practice to type in the web address and search for the product or promotion manually.
- Tip #7 – Look for the “https” and padlock icon – Web sites that don’t use proper encryption can make you an easy target for thieves. It is recommended to use only sites with the padlock icon and the “https” security designation. A web site that lacks those two crucial signals may not be secure for your purchase.
- Tip #8 – Verify with the sender before opening ecards – Ecards from unknown senders may contain malicious links.
- Tip #9 – Surf wisely on public Wi-Fi – Cyberthieves can capture the data that travels between your phone and the router on a public Wi-Fi network, so limit online banking and other sensitive information to your home and office only. Better yet, set up a VPN on your phone or computer.
At Home and Office: Safeguard Snail Mail
The U.S. Postal Service delivered nearly 150 billion pieces of mail in 2017, and much of that contains personal information that could be used to steal your identity. Believe it or not, 4 percent of the 9.9 million identity thefts annually still take place the old fashioned way—by stealing physical mail.
Give yourself the gift of a cross-cut shredder, so you can properly dispose of bank statements, medical statements, credit card offers, and other important documents.
- Tip #10 – Invest in a cross-cut shredder – Documents shredded by strip-cut shredders could possibly be reassembled by a determined thief. Invest instead in a cross-cut or micro-cut shredder.
- Tip #11 – When in doubt, shred it – The Federal Trade Commission provides a guide on what you should shred, and when.
- Tip #12 – Don’t let mail linger – The U.S. Postal Service recommends depositing outgoing mail in a USPS collection box, and not leaving mail in your mailbox overnight, on the weekend or when you travel.
Ongoing Monitoring: Keep a Watchful Eye on Transactions
Identity theft and credit fraud can happen in a wide variety of ways – from a dishonest clerk who snaps a quick photo of your card to make fraudulent transactions, to a hacker stealing your personal information online. As the FTC reports, although you can’t always prevent this type of theft or fraud from happening, you can put up obstacles to make a cybercriminal’s job much more difficult.
Possibly the most important everyday defense you have at your fingertips is paying close attention to the transactions of your financial accounts.
- Tip #13 – Reconcile receipts – Save your receipts to compare them with your statement when it arrives.
- Tip #14 – Sign up for mobile banking alerts. Download your bank’s official mobile app, so you can more easily monitor transactions.
- Tip #15 – Set a calendar reminder for a post-holiday check-up – Before the holidays get rolling, now is a great time to set a reminder for an annual review of your credit reports.
What to Do in Case of Theft or Suspected Fraud
If you do suspect theft or fraud, report it immediately to your bank or credit institution as well as the proper authorities in order to minimize your losses and begin working toward resolution.
- Contact the card issuer immediately if a card is lost or stolen to minimize your responsibility for fraudulent charges.
- File a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) in the case of online theft.
- Report the incident to your local police and file a report with the Federal Trade Commission.
- Change any exposed passwords.