The holidays are a great time for buying gifts — and also a prime time for thieves. But having your purse or wallet stolen in a busy mall might be the least of your worries this year when it comes to holiday shopping and identity theft.
Here are the best ways to protect yourself from different types of identity theft this holiday season.
1. Stick With Familiar Retailers and Brands
Popular holiday products are often similarly priced among reputable companies. Big brands monitor their competitors so that their prices are not undercut. Some immoral companies might advertise a product at an amazingly low price to attract your attention, but any deal that looks too good to be true probably is.
Cleveland 19 News reported that one consumer bought an RCA tablet from Walmart as part of a very cheap Black Friday deal. She was later disappointed because the product didn’t function well. She sent the products back, but only one was returned — and that tablet still malfunctioned. RCA is a name licensed to several Chinese electronics makers.
Robert Siciliano, an identity theft prevention expert with BestIDTheftCompanys.com, said to avoid any seller who appears to offer a vastly different product or price. He advised choosing brand names that you know rather than choosing the cheapest provider. “Stick with familiar retailers,” he said. “Unbelievably low prices are a red flag because competitors are always checking each other’s prices.”
2. Beware of Customer Reviews
Online shopping and Google searches increase exponentially during the holiday season. In 2014, Think With Google reported that over 92 percent of holiday shoppers intended to research gifts or make purchases online. But you shouldn’t always believe what you read online.
Online customer reviews can be written by anyone and might not be genuine. Siciliano says, “An unscrupulous seller may hire people to write favorable reviews. Although one clue is that the same reviewer has reviewed tons of products, other reviews are crafted more cleverly. Identical reviews on different sites are suspicious.”
Rather than trust online reviews, ask your friends for recommendations on products. You can use your own social network to find more trustworthy information.
3. Watch Out for Phishing
Scammers will be more active this holiday season, and email traffic confirming online orders and deliveries will exponentially increase. Never give out personal information online unless you initiated contact. For example, ordering online from a reputable store is typically safe, but if you receive an email asking you to go to another site to input personal information, you’re probably being scammed.
“The crook sends you the bait: an e-mail that looks like it’s from a reputable company with a malicious link to a site that looks like the company’s requesting you turn over your username, password or credit card number,” said Siciliano. “Do this and the thieves will spend your money.”
Avoid scams by watching for emails that appear to be from a shipper or retailer. Check the email address and domain name of any sites and make sure they match that of the shipper or retailer exactly. Remember that no established company will require an email or password to be divulged by email or over the phone. Finally, don’t donate to charities until you have checked their legitimacy on sites like CharityNavigator.
4. Watch Your Credit and Debit Cards in Crowded Malls
Even if your transaction takes place in a store, it’s processed online. Therefore, your information is accessible to hackers, and your credit card number can be used by hackers for purchases. Always check your statements for any unauthorized purchases.
Philip Lee, chief financial planning officer with Modera Wealth Management, recommended freezing your credit reports with the three bureaus Equifax, Experian and Transunion. “No company — other than who you deal with — can look at your credit report,” said Lee. “Creditors will not open new accounts, so this is the best protection against someone opening an account in your name.” Lee added that there is a small fee to freeze or unfreeze credit reports.
Not using a debit card at all during the holiday period could be another smart option, explained Elle Kaplan, CEO of LexION Capital Management. “Thieves can do everything from stealing your card information online to … creating a duplicate at a retail store,” said Kaplan. “[Y]ou have legal rights that defend you from being liable for these fraudulent charges [with credit cards], which is something you won’t see with a debit card. Also, the credit card provider will frequently refund your money quickly, and then dispute the fraudulent charges on your behalf.”
5. Understand the New Chip Cards
The new EMV chip cards introduced in October 2015 will be used heavily this holiday season. These cards use a personal identification number (PIN) instead of a signature. “While this makes EMV-equipped cards less susceptible to the hacking of transactional data between point of sale … they are still not fully secure and open the door to online fraud and identity theft,” said Srii Srinivasan, co-founder of Chargeback Gurus and a certified e-commerce fraud prevention specialist.
“Chip cards can be counterfeited using information obtained on the black market, and the chips are especially unlikely to stop the use of such counterfeited or stolen cards in purchases where a card is not physically present, such as over the phone or internet,” explained Srinivasan. Sign and activate your credit cards as soon as you get them and make sure the package hasn’t been tampered with in any way. If so, contact the bank immediately.
6. Be Cautious With Craigslist Sellers and Buyers
Buyers and sellers on Craigslist are an unknown entity and can present particular risk when it comes to holiday shopping. Avoid carrying cash when you arrange a potential face-to-face transaction. “Meet only in safe, public places,” Siciliano advised. “Inform the seller you’ll first meet without any cash, just to inspect the sale item. If you want to buy it, get your money from an ATM.”
There is also no guarantee that what you buy on Craigslist is genuine or even functioning. “Similarly, don’t purchase stolen products,” added Siciliano. “Request proof of ownership. Or request the serial number and see if your state keeps a database of stolen items.”
7. Update Browsers With the Newest Security Patches
The devices that you use for your online shopping are targets for hackers and scams. “Think about how much financial data you have in cyber space,” said Daniel Conroy, chief information security officer for Synchrony Financial. “How many sites store your credit card information? If you can minimize the amount and ensure that your profiles and accounts are deleted for sites you no longer use, it will minimize your digital footprint.”
“No matter what device or operating system you use, your data is only as secure as its hardware and software,” said Siciliano. “That means updating everything and locking everything up … Each device’s manufacturer provides frequent software updates with critical security patches designed to patch any vulnerabilities that were discovered by researchers or criminal hackers. Set critical security patches to update automatically.”
“Your browser needs to be updated to its latest version for the same reason an operating system does. Only enter credit card numbers in sites that have HTTPS in the address bar. That means there’s encryption on that page,” said Siciliano. “Always use an encrypted wireless connection [for your wireless devices] using, at a minimum, WPA or WPA2 encryption. Otherwise, use a virtual private network software.”
For the best identity theft protection, your holiday shopping will require extra diligence. Remember to check your mail and destroy any documentation offering you a new credit card. Also check your credit and debit card statements in detail, stick to reputable retailers and don’t give out any personal information. “Remember, you are your first and best defense,” said Conroy.