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Tips to Avoid Holiday Identity Theft

The modern-day Scrooge can strike under many guises this holiday season, from a phishing link to full-blown identity theft. And since this holiday season is forecasted to be a particularly “digital" one, with more shoppers heading online and turning to their smartphones to purchase gifts, according to the National Retail Federation, there's an increased likelihood that you could be tricked or fooled by someone on the naughty list.

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According to the NRF, the average spending per person will reach $805.65 in 2015, up from $802.45 last year. Meanwhile, almost half of holiday shopping, consisting of browsing and buying gifts, will be done online, according to the Federation's survey. Consumers say 46 percent of their shopping will be done online, and 21.4 percent of smartphone owners will also use their devices to purchase gifts for others.

“We expect consumers will tackle their holiday shopping lists with a dose of optimism, tempered by a hint of caution as they look for ways to find the perfect, practical gift," Matthew Shay, president and CEO of NRF, said in a press release.

Indeed, caution is key here….especially in a day and age when data breaches and identity theft are growing threats. During the holidays, when many people are in a rush and distracted, it's easier than ever to fall victim. Here are 10 ways to avoid holiday identity theft this year.

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1. Use Legitimate Sites When Shopping

There are signs to help indicate that a site is secure, such as “https" in the Web address and an icon of a locked padlock on the left side of the URL.

You should also be sure that emails sent to you with promotional links don't point back toward an altered link, often with one or two letters missing or changed (think “Targt" instead of “Target," and so on). This could signal a phishing scam, designed to fool you into entering personal information, like your credit card number or your email and password, which may later be used in an attempt to compromise your identity.

2. Use a Secure Network

When shopping online, also be sure that you're using a secure Wi-Fi connection, so that no one can lurk online and spy on your actions. Remember that your phones and computers are also gateways to your personal information, so make sure they are password-protected and also secure.

3. Be Careful of What You Share Online

Over-sharing information such as your children's names and dates of birth or even holiday plans can lead thieves lurking on your “friend" list to gain access to valuable information that could help them hack into your online accounts or even know when you're out of town to attempt to break into your property.

4. Choose Cash or Credit over Debit

Credit cards provide more protection when it comes to fraudulent activity, since credit card companies monitor suspicious activity and can put a stop to fraudulent charges before they happen. Debit cards, on the other hand, immediately withdraw money from your account and don't offer the same level of protection.

5. Use Credit Protection Tools

Also take advantage of credit protection tools, such as ID theft alerts, enrolling in an identity theft protection company plan, and new chip cards, which add an extra layer of protection for consumers. If you haven't received a new card with a chip from your company, you should request one before you begin your holiday shopping.

6. Be Careful When Opening New Retail Credit Accounts

Many stores offer attractive discounts and incentives to those who open a store credit card account, but it's important that shoppers remain conscientious throughout the enrollment process. For example, you may be required to write down your Social Security number or other personal information when opening an account. Be sure no one is spying over your shoulder when you do so, and ask the sales associate how your information will be discarded after it is entered into the system.

If you receive promotional offers through email that seem too good to be true, be sure to do your due diligence. You'll want to make sure these offers are legitimate and secure before submitting any personal information.

7. Be Leery of Skimmers

Remain on the look out for devices attached to card readers or ATMs that could steal your financial data. Also watch out for anyone behind you in a checkout line that could be snapping a photo of your credit card number or other personal information.

8. Check Your Statements and Credit Reports Twice

Always check over your credit card statements and credit reports, especially during high-volume shopping periods like the holiday season. Remain vigilant and inquire about any suspicious activity to catch any attempt at identity theft before it escalates.

9. Write “Check Photo ID" on the Back of Your Credit Cards

In case your credit cards are lost or stolen, it's helpful to write “check photo ID" on the back of your card. This will prevent anyone else from being able to use it.

10. Freeze Your Credit If Needed

If you have any serious suspicions about identity theft or cyber thieves (for example, if you've recently been affected by a major data breach), then consider freezing your credit to prevent anyone from opening a new line of credit in your name. You can inquire about this with credit monitoring services, or you can contact the big three credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—to place a temporary hold until matters are resolved.

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