(ARA) – Sleigh bells ring, lights twinkle, snow gently blankets the landscape and the aroma of baking fills the air – it’s easy to get caught up in the warm feelings of the holidays. But if you let your guard down while holiday shopping, Santa might not be the only one uttering “Ho, ho, ho” this season. Identity thieves are looking for opportunities to make their season especially bright.
“As we have seen year after year, the holidays always yield a higher rate of identity theft and related frauds,” says Linda Foley, founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC). “At times like these, it is important to protect yourself from the many individuals looking to take advantage of vulnerable targets — both out in public and online.”
Among the tech-savvy 18- to 24-year-olds, 76 percent expect to do their holiday shopping in a store, rather than online, according to a 2009 survey by ProtectMyID.com. And 87 percent of all respondents in a survey by the ITRC reported some level of concern about the safety of their personal identifying and financial information when shopping, paying bills or banking online. In the ProtectMyID survey, 74 percent of people 55 to 64 said they felt in-store shopping is safer than buying online. Yet experts agree that most identity theft occurs in more traditional ways, such as going through a person’s mail or trash, or even peeping over someone’s shoulder to snag a PIN number at the ATM.
Fortunately, you can do a lot to stop identity theft – both the high- and low-tech kinds — this holiday season. Here are some important tips to help you protect yourself, both online and in a store this holiday season:
* Beware of shoulder surfers when shopping in a store. Identity thieves may stand close behind you when you pay at a checkout counter or use an ATM. Protect your credit cards, driver’s license and checkbook from wandering eyes.
* Be aware of your surroundings. Pickpocketing increases noticeably during the holidays. Keep a close eye on your belongings in crowded malls and stores.
* Never take your eyes off your credit card when you hand it over to pay. Unscrupulous store clerks may use a “skimming” device that downloads your information. Make sure your card gets swiped only once, through one machine and the swipe takes place in front of you. If a clerk turns his or her back on you and conceals your view of the swipe in any way, ask for your card back immediately.
* Minimize what you carry in your purse or wallet when shopping in a store. Carry only what you will need – your ID and one major credit card, or the card for the specific store you’re shopping in. And never leave your purse, backpack or handbag unzipped, which makes it easy for thieves to slip a hand in and lift your wallet out.
* Consider enrolling in an identity theft protection product, like ProtectMyID. Not only will you be able to monitor your credit report daily, you’ll receive alerts via e-mail, text or mail whenever something changes on your credit reports, such as an address or an application for a new line of credit. Experienced fraud resolution agents provide personal assistance in resolving identity theft issues if your identity is compromised, and even help in the event of a lost or stolen wallet.
* When shopping online, keep printouts and receipts for your Web purchases. Use a credit card instead of a debit card, and make sure the site you’re buying from is on a secure server. Look for familiar insignia, like the closed lock, that indicates a site has security measures in place.
* Be sure to protect your home PC or laptop with security software, including anti-virus software and a firewall.
* Shop at trusted sites, or those recommended by secure comparison shopping sites, such as PriceGrabber.com.