Although it’s the most wonderful time of the year, you still need to guard your identity so you don’t suffer from a not-so-merry Christmas or a less-than-happy Chanukah.
Increased spending by consumers over the holidays translates into increased targets of opportunity for hackers, scammers, thieves, and crooks looking to pillage your personal information for their financial gain.
Some scams are new. Some are old. Some target the old. And some target the young. Whatever your age or situation, there are steps you should take to protect your identity from a legion of Grinches, not just for this holiday season, but beyond.
The Federal Trade Commission received more than three million complaints of identity theft in 2016. Also, during the 2018 holiday season, online purchase fraud increased by 13%. So, if you think it will only happen to somebody else, think again.
Here are several things you can do to make you and your family a hard target against identity theft year-round.
While You’re Out and About
Although many now prefer to shop online in pajamas from the comfort of their homes, there are still a lot of people who love the hustle and bustle of heading out to the malls and shopping destinations for a good, old-fashioned game of bumper car consumerism. Crowded public areas are rich targets for thieves to snag your wallet and contents. When you’re out and about, take these precautions:
- Despite the shiny displays, holiday sales and a multitude of distractions in a busy store, always take time to secure your wallet. Pickpockets LOVE crowds. So, button your back pockets. Keep your purse secure and in front of you. And, limit the amount of personal information you carry in case you do become a victim.
- Try to make purchases via credit instead of debit. Long story short, if you are a victim of fraud, getting a refund is a lot easier with credit than with a debit transaction.
- Carry a wallet with RFID. RFID stands for Radio Frequency Blocking capability. RFID technology allows credit card information to be read without the card being swiped through a machine. That’s nasty! But when you have an RFID blocking wallet, you stop thieves from snagging your credit card info through your pants or your purse.
- When using an ATM, be mindful of who’s in line… they may be trying to steal your PIN information or someone else’s PIN information. They can do a lot of damage if they also manage to gain control of your card number as well. Also, try to stick with bank-affiliated ATMs only. They provide an added layer of security.
- When making a purchase, be sure your card is swiped only once and that you get it back as part of the transaction. Also, keep all your receipts in a safe place after you buy.
Is Shopping Online Really Safe?
We think so, but you must remain vigilant. Merchants have made great strides in protecting online transactions, but you’re still vulnerable if you don’t do your part.
First and foremost, make sure the site you’re shopping on is secure and legitimate. There are several variations on phishing scams that will try to pry your personal information away from you. These can include unsolicited emails, urgent “fear of missing out” promos, or requests to update and verify your personal information, among many others. You may be threatened with account suspension if you don’t give your personal information. If it feels phony, don’t engage.
Look for a URL that starts with https instead of just http. The “s” at the end means that site is more secure. Also, look for a “Lock” icon displayed in the address bar before or after the URL. You can see more detailed info by clicking it.
Shop with companies you know and trust. If you’re a repeat customer, you’re probably getting contacted with holiday deals. When you’ve had a track record of good purchases throughout the year, you can feel pretty safe in knowing you’re going to have a good transaction with a known merchant the next time around.
Avoid shopping online at wireless hotspots as that network may not be secure.
Update all of your anti-virus and anti-spyware programs. Thieves are always trying to build new workarounds, and theft protection companies are constantly monitoring and changing the game to create hard targets for customers.
After you make purchases, close your apps. Even though you may not see them on your screen, they could still be running in the background. If they are, hackers could have access to them and swipe your personal information before you have any clue that you’ve been victimized.
Delete your browsing and cookie history if you’re concerned about thefts. It’s a bit of pain to have to re-enter your credit information for new purchases after you do this, but it is another way to maximize your identity theft protection.
Hard Target Home Protection
You should be doing all the following year-round, but especially during the high crime holiday season:
- Take mail out of your mailbox every day. If you don’t have a box with any lock on it, this is crucial. Even if you do, a thief can still pick a lock and be gone with your mail in a matter of moments. If you’re out of town for any period, have a neighbor pick up your mail or place a hold at the post office until you return.
- Shred all your sensitive documents. Digging through your trash is a favorite among identity thieves, and it’s easy to do so at 3 a.m. on trash day if you roll your barrels out the night before. Pulverize your credit card statements, bank notices, bills, and other personal information. Don’t just rip up these things into two or three large chunks and call it a day, either. Make the pieces as small as possible and even consider dumping sensitive information on different trash days.
- Mail all your bill payments or any letters or parcels with sensitive information directly at the post office or by dropping them in a secure mailbox.
- Porch pirates are among the worst kind of thieves, waiting until a delivery has been made to your address. But, did you ever stop to think that they may be tracking your online activity to know exactly when to hit your house? Prevent this by having packages delivered to your office, an Amazon Locker, or a pickup location provided by the carrier.
- After the fact, always check your credit card statements and immediately take action for any purchases you don’t recognize. Merchant processing companies have a lot of protections in place, but you have to do your part as well.
Protect Yourself by Protecting Your Kids
Kids and teens are among the most tech-savvy people on the planet, at least when it comes to social media and online gaming. They may be world-class players on Fortnight or Call of Duty, but they could also be a huge vulnerability when it comes to identity theft.
In 2017, according to a study from Javelin Strategy & Research, more than one million children were identity theft victims. Two-thirds were less than eight years old, leading to estimated losses of $2.6 billion. And not all of that came out of their pockets. Most of it actually came out of moms’ and dads’ wallets and purses.
It’s up to you to teach your children some identity theft guidelines because they may be pint-sized family members, but they can produce full-sized headaches for you.
Children may or may not already have credit histories, and this is a good place to start. If they do, they can be a target. These accounts aren’t generally monitored or have protections like fraud alerts or identity theft protections that are in place. Thieves can gradually open up accounts, giving the appearance of legitimacy. That can lead to much bigger losses. In fact, it’s estimated that losses from a child’s identity theft are double those stolen from adults.
You can contact the three of the major credit reporting bureaus to ask for a “manual search” of files relating both to your child’s name and Social Security number.
- Equifax: 800-525-6285
- Experian: 888-397-3742
- TransUnion: firstname.lastname@example.org
Children of all ages are notorious for having tons of online friends as part of their gaming activities. That means you’ve got to be hypervigilant when they sign up. Make sure they don’t give any identifying information that could later be used to hack their personal info. Don’t give out a date of birth, home address, or a Social Security number (Yup! It happens!)
Teach them about how they can be catfished into giving out personal information as well.
When it comes to social media, make it clear that the password will always be available to you as parents, and that you will check in regularly on their activities. Ideally, gaming should be done in a common area of the home. That may not always be possible, especially if loud noises are involved or a teen wants their privacy.
If your children are a bit older and have their own bank accounts, still monitor those accounts for suspicious activities. You walk a fine line between invading privacy and protecting your child, so be sure you and your child understand what your purposes are when you monitor.
Your child can also be vulnerable at other touchpoints in their lives. Sometimes schools will release personally identifiable information to third parties. Ask if there is an opt-out policy and consider implementing it.
Also, when filling out medical or school forms, skip the part that asks for the child’s Social Security number. You don’t have to give it. If asked, politely say that you’re concerned about ID theft and therefore decline to use the number. If pressed, then fill in the field with all zeros.