The holiday season is a prime time for identity thieves who are looking to prey on your information. It’s the time of year where we make many transactions, and we’re so distracted that we might not know our personal information is being stolen. More than 10.7 million cases of personal information were reported being stolen in the past year, according to a report published by the Identity Theft Resource Center. Identity theft can be a frightening experience, but you don’t have to let identity thieves ruin your holiday cheer. Here are six precautionary steps you can take to ensure your identity is protected.
Beware of phishing, a tactic in which spam mimics legitimate banks or businesses to obtain your personal information, which they use to access your accounts. When you’re shopping online this month, always make sure you’re on a familiar website of a legitimate retailer before entering personal data, and ignore unfamiliar or unsolicited emails with links promising great deals.
When purchasing gifts this month, use your credit card instead of your debit card so you won’t lose direct funds from your bank account if your information is compromised. With a credit card, you're never liable for unauthorized charges, unlike debit transactions, which are the same as cash. Using credit cards also allows you to dispute charges and get purchase protection for loss, theft or damage. If you’re hesitant about using your credit card, try a pre-paid debit card that won’t provide access to your personal information or bank account.
Many of us use our personal information when holiday shopping online. With all those account numbers and passwords out there, it’s easy for an identity thief to retrieve your information. Exercise caution when completing online orders and use discretion when providing information. Reset your logins and passwords monthly, especially if you’re doing shopping from a public computer. Alternatively, you could use a password vault like Last Pass to generate and remember strong and unique passwords for you.
If you want to buy yourself a gift this holiday season, then consider purchasing a cross-cutting shredder and one that can also cut through plastic for your credit and debit cards. A good shredder will turn any document into tiny, useless scraps of unreadable paper in a matter of seconds, which is much better than ripping it with your hands. Anything that has a signature, account number, Social Security number or has medical or legal information should be shredded such as expired credit and debit cards, credit card statements, pre-approved credit cards, canceled checks and medical bills. The U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that someone can legally dig through your trash(California v. Greenwood), which means people looking for your personal information can find it unless you take the necessary precautions.
Watch for activity on your bank and credit card statements that look suspicious. The end of the year is the perfect time to review your statements and repair issues before they get out of hand. If there are charges that are not yours, contact your banking or credit card institution immediately. Monitor for random minor charges for less than a dollar or two from unfamiliar companies or individuals. Thieves who are planning to purchase a block of stolen credit card numbers often first test to check that the accounts haven't been canceled by sending a small charge through, sometimes for only a few pennies. If the first charge succeeds, they'll buy the stolen data and make a much larger charge or purchase. Another holiday gift that you can get for yourself is a subscription for an identity monitoring service.
Be wary of sharing sensitive information via social networks. Don’t share your personal information like your address, birth date, phone numbers, Social Security number or birth place online. During the holidays, many of us travel or attend social functions and we may feel tempted to post details about our location and whereabouts in the name of holiday cheer. It’s better that we don’t post too much information. While sites like Facebook may have privacy filters, they aren’t always foolproof, nor do they extend to any of the other online databases where you may have personal information stored away. Consider restricting access to your social sites to a small network of people and limit what you share. Remember to always err on the side of caution when it comes to your personal information. If you happen to become a victim of identity theft, take action immediately and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. After you’re done filing the complaint, then you can print your Identify Theft Affidavit. You’ll then use the affidavit to file a police report and later create an identity theft report. The Federal Trade Commission website outlines the steps as well. You can also place a fraud alert with the following credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. No one is immune to identity theft, but armed with the right knowledge and a little common sense, you can do your best to prevent it so you can enjoy the holidays peacefully.
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