You may be too busy scouting for sales and checking things off your to-do list to notice, but identity thieves go looking for targets this time of year. And the more preoccupied you are, the more attractive you become as a potential victim.
While you can’t eliminate the risk, there are many ways to help reduce it, says Carrie Kerskie, identity theft expert and author of “Your Public Identity: Because Nothing is Private Anymore.”
It’s smart to be skeptical of deals that seem too good to be true — you could be buying counterfeit merchandise or being lured to a website that exists only to steal credit information.
There are also good reasons to favor credit cards over debit cards. Debit cards give you far less time to report fraudulent use and get your money back. They also offer fewer consumer protections than credit cards.
On the other hand, debit cards can be effective in helping you limit spending to what you have budgeted. Set up real-time alerts so that you get a text or email whenever the card is used. If it’s used fraudulently, report it immediately.
Safe shopping online
According to Experian, 43% of people reporting that they were victims of identity theft in 2017 said it happened online, during the holidays. While shopping online makes it easy to compare prices, be cautious. Here are some tips for shopping safely online:
- Shop on websites that you are familiar with.
- Double-check that you have typed in the URL correctly before you order anything or enter payment information. Misspelled versions of real websites are sometimes purchased by criminals, Kerskie says, a practice known as “typosquatting.”
- Print a copy of your order confirmation rather than relying on the website to send it to you. It might be your only evidence of your purchase.
- “Look for the green padlock before entering payment information,” advises Kerskie. She cautions that the green padlock, located before the URL, is not foolproof. Criminals can buy security certificates to get it. However, the absence of one is a sign you should shop elsewhere.
- Before you order, search online for customer complaints, advises Kerskie. Pay special attention to any that mention products not delivered or problems getting refunds.
- Avoid using public Wi-Fi to shop online. If you must do it, get a virtual private network so that your information is encrypted.
In-person shopping safety tips
Embedded chips have made in-store fraud more difficult, and more criminals are going online, according to a study published last year by Javelin, a digital finance research firm. “Card not present fraud” — where a charge is made by phone, postal mail or online — has become 81% more likely than in-store fraud. That’s not to suggest shopping at the mall is risk-free. Good habits for shopping in person include:
- Know where your purse or backpack is at all times and keep it zipped or snapped shut. That means not turning your back when it’s in a shopping cart or stepping away to use the restroom and leaving it in a restaurant booth.
- Keep your cards in a wallet credit card holder rather than loose in a pocket.
- If you buy from an online marketplace and need to meet in person, choose a busy, well-lighted location, and don’t go alone.
- Password-protect your smartphone. Especially if you use Apple Wallet or Google Pay, your cards are vulnerable. Kerskie says a password is more secure than a thumbprint or facial recognition.
- Account for every card you took with you when you return home.
Check statements carefully and make sure you recognize every purchase.
Also, keep tabs on your credit reports and scores. Many personal finance websites provide free credit reports and scores to consumers. Applications or accounts you don’t recognize can tip you off to a problem early, when it’s easier to resolve.