December is Identity Theft Protection Awareness Month. As the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping is in full swing and many persons continue working remotely, identity thieves are likely to take advantage of system exposures. But there’s ways to safeguard your identity and your assets. GreenPath Financial Wellness, a national nonprofit that provides financial counseling and debt management services, has released a list of tips to protect you and your family from identity theft this holiday season.
A 2020 Experian survey found that nearly a quarter of survey respondents (24%) were the victim of identity theft or fraud during the holidays – either when they used a credit card while shopping at a retail store (22 percent) or while shopping online (21 percent).
“As our collective screen time levels remain high, the holiday retail season is increasingly digital and high levels of online transactions continue, we are even more vulnerable to cyber threats,” said GreenPath president and CEO Kristen Holt. “It’s important we all remain vigilant year-round to protect our personal information and be on the lookout for those seeking to do harm.”
When shopping in-person:
1. Carry only what you need. Keep the number of personal items you carry to a bare minimum. Apply the behavioral economics principle of “self-handicapping,” where you put obstacles or friction between you and your credit cards to make it harder to use them. Use the rule of three: one credit card, your driver’s license or identity card, and a debit card.
2. Be aware of your surroundings. Pick pocketers are always a concern while in public spaces. When you complete a transaction, make a concerted effort (doublecheck) to safely store your identification and/or credit cards in your wallet. If you are paying with a credit or debit card, keep the number concealed just in case someone behind you (though they should be at least six feet away) is watching.
3. Check for “skimming” devices. One way identity thieves steal someone’s credentials is by attaching skimming devices to card readers or ATMs. These gadgets copy credit card information, which criminals can use to replicate the card and make unauthorized purchases. Avoid using a card reader or ATM that appears as if someone has tampered with it.
When shopping online:
4. Use trusted, secured websites. It’s important to look in the address field for URLs that begin with
“https” or have icons that look like a lock when shopping online. Watch pop-up sites and “click-bait” ads that may not be secure.
5. Utilize retailer apps where possible, as there are often built-in additional security features. This is another way you can ensure you are purchasing directly from a valid source.
6. Use a credit card, not a debit card, when shopping. Leverage the fraud protections provided with most credit cards. Should you become a victim of fraud, it could take some time for the fraudulent activity on your debit card to be rectified, which could affect the funds you may need for day-to-day expenses.
7. Decline offers to store your credit card information. Avoiding this step may also make it less easy for you to make impulse buys.
8. Use PayPal, digital wallets (Apple Pay) or virtual cards instead of providing your credit card number. Digital wallets use an encryption system (Face ID) that replaces your card information with a one-time digital “token” when you make a transaction.
9. Monitor alerts and accounts regularly. Check for any transactions you did not make.
10. Exercise healthy skepticism about unsolicited financial offers. Recognize email phishing scams. Often thieves pose as financial institutions or other companies, sending links designed to entice you to reveal personal information. Pay attention to the email address of the sender and watch for peculiar spelling. If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that millions of Americans have their identities stolen each year.
What should you do if you become a victim of identity theft?
“It can be overwhelming to find out someone has stolen your personal information,” said Holt. “But know that you’re not alone. It’s important to act quickly and take immediate steps to mitigate damage and reduce your stress.” If something seems amiss:
• Place a fraud alert on your credit reports. Contact TransUnion, Equifax or Experian, your bank and/or creditors to report unexplained charges or fraudulent information on your credit report.
• Close accounts that you believe have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Follow up in writing with supporting documentation.
• File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/) or call its Identity Theft Hotline at 1-877-ID-THEFT.
• File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the theft took place.
GreenPath offers two webinars on identity theft and online security that are available to view on-demand. Each webinar will give you the facts about what identity theft is, how to protect yourself, and what to do if your identity has been stolen.
Focusing on non-traditional gifts and the joy of experiences this holiday season can help you celebrate in a budget-conscious way and mitigate cyber fraud. GreenPath suggests consumers resist the urge to splurge, shop your pantry/freezer/closet first or volunteer at a friend or loved one’s favorite charity.
By seeking alternative ways to revel in the season, you can avoid excess holiday debt and lower exposure to identity theft. Visit www.greenpath.com for more information.
GreenPath is a member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) and is accredited by the Council on Accreditation (COA). Visit www.greenpath.com or call 866-648-8122.