by Broderick Perkins
(11/17/2011) ERATE Exclusive - 'Tis the season to be jolly and crooks are out and about trying to deck their halls with your holly.
While you are harried, preoccupied and busy spreading seasonal joy, identity thieves will attempt to capitalize on your distractions and pull a fast one.
When someone steals your identity, you don't become a Jane or John Doe wandering aimlessly down the isles of retail outlets and online merchants.
Identity thieves steal personal information including your name, address, Social Security number, credit card numbers and other personal information and then use the information to masquerade as you tin order o tap your financial accounts -- your money.
"The holidays present a wealth of opportunity for identity thieves," says Heather Battison, TransUnion's senior director responsible for consumer education.
"The hectic holiday season can potentially expose our personal information to theft in both high-tech ways like phishing scams, and in traditional ones, such as a stolen wallet or mail theft," she added.
When it comes to keeping identity thieves at bay, it's OK to behave like Scrooge.
The experts advise:
• When holiday shopping, carry essential documents only -- your driver's license and credit or debit cards you intend to use that day. Leave your Social Security card, birth certificate or passport, wholesale club cards, library cards and others behind and there's less to lose.
• Consider using one card or cash for all your purchases. Credit cards carry greater protections than debit cards, should you need to dispute a charge or file a claim for theft.
Also consider consolidating your purchases as much as possible so you shop from as few merchants as possible. Reducing the number of transactions reduces your risk of identity theft.
• Monitor your financial accounts and statements closely -- daily and online if possible. This will help you quickly flag any charges you don't recognize. The strategy, hopefully, will also help you keep tabs on your spending. That will help you stay on budget.
• When shopping online, keep personal computer passwords separate from passwords for online merchants. Never use the same password twice. It's a bear, but you should have a different password for all your sensitive accounts. Passwords should be a random mix of numbers, letters and characters. Keep a list of your passwords in a secure place.
• Shop online only with businesses with websites that have security measures in place to protect you. Look for the "https" designation (rather than just "http") in the URL or address of a commercial web site and find the lock emblem before you provide any personal or payment information.
• Shop online from your home, personal office or other location with a secure, fire wall-protected network. Don't shop from public or workplace networks, even if you use your own laptop, tablet or other digital device. Those networks can be monitored and your information can be disclosed to others.
Don't trust emailed merchant links. Instead, type in their web address and go directly to the site.
• Protect your password when using ATMs. Identity thieves can jimmy ATMs to cause your card to become stuck inside the machine -- until the thief retrieves it. They also hide small cameras near ATMs to extract Personal Identifying Numbers (PINs). Gas pumps are also susceptible to this scam.
• Use automatic teller machines (ATMs) as little as possible by planning ahead for the amount of cash you'll need for the near future. Whenever possible use bank ATMs, rather than generic machines, especially ATMs inside the banks or in a protected area. Avoid using ATMs in secluded locations.
• Shred all those extra documents that crowd your mailbox during the season, especially anything that has personal, identifying information.
• Avoid using your return address on holiday greeting card envelopes containing only greeting cards. Not only there is no need to include a return address on the greeting card envelopes, they could also be lost in the jumble of holiday wrappings or stolen.
Have a safe, happy, identity theft-free holiday season.