Credit card fraud, data breaches and identity theft often seem like only stories in the news that you hear in passing—until it happens to you or someone you know. It seems to get worse as thieves and scammers get more sophisticated, daring and greedy. Victims are not just large corporations or financial institutions; individuals lose credit cards, their identities, security numbers, bank balances, passwords and sensitive personal information at an unprecedented scale today, especially during the holiday season.
Fortunately, credit information is not very difficult to secure. While being a victim to such theft can cost a lifetime of pain and suffering, preventing it is sometimes as simple as constant care with your credit information, e.g., never letting your credit card out of your sight when making a payment at the gas station or grocery store. To protect your credit history and identity over the holidays, here is a compilation of the five most important steps you should take right now.
- Secure your online accounts and devices
Smartphones and tablets certainly make our lives easier—even better. However, these handheld devices we carry everywhere we go and use with so much ease also accord thieves opportunities to steal our information. To be safe, you should limit the chances of your identity and credit information being compromised when your devices fall into the wrong hands by password protecting your devices and enabling built-in security features such as auto-lock and biometric unlock.
However annoying inputting a code every time you need to use the device seems, it pays off when the device gets lost or stolen. Your passwords should be strong and complex by consisting of letters, numbers and symbols. Also, it is important to keep malware protection up-to-date on your devices and to run virus scans on your computer.
- Use credit cards over cash, check or debit cards
U.S. Federal Law guarantees your protection when you swipe your credit card while making a payment. This means that you are not liable for fraudulent purchases when you make payments with your credit card. In case of a dispute, you will often get a quick refund from the credit card provider as they pursue the merchant breaches on your behalf. When money from your credit card is stolen, it is essentially the bank’s money, not yours. However, when money is stolen from your debit card or when you lose cash, your holiday could be a lousy one because you may bear the brunt of the fraud.
- Securely shop online and in store
When shopping for your holiday gifts and items online, before you check out and enter your credit information, be sure to triple check the security and authenticity of the sites you are shopping on. The easiest way to check this is to ensure that the site or sites are verified by TRUSTe or other reputable personal credit and identity management services. Verified sites often have a privacy seal at the bottom of the secure page. It is also recommended that you check that the page’s payment URL is secured and starts with “https://” and not plain “http://.” When shopping at a physical store, keep a close watch of your credit or debit card. As a rule of thumb, never let the card out of your sight.
- Regularly review your transactions and credit reports
When you get home from a shopping spree, or when your credit report is ready, scrutinize every transaction to ensure that you were only charged for purchases and services that you authorized. Ensure that you are accessing your credit management page over a secure connection and not over a public Wi-Fi connection. There are a number of web services that make tracking of your credit transactions easier, which can be particularly useful when you have multiple accounts. At the end of the month when your credit provider sends you a credit report, carefully look at it to ensure that there are no suspicious activities on your card.
- Do not spend more than you can pay off in January
When the holiday season is in full swing, it is very tempting to go overboard with the parties, gifting and fun. To avoid harming your credit score, consider investing some time in budgeting and planning, and know exactly how much you can afford to pay off by January 21. You should aim at spending an amount lower than you can pay off comfortably to preserve a good credit score and to avoid paying hefty interest and late fees caused by unplanned holiday spending. On the same note, be sure to check your credit reports before December 31 so you can start a new year knowing where you stand financially and that your credit is safe from marauding fraudsters.
Most consumers who fall prey to phishers, fraudsters and scammers over the holiday season, do so not because they are unaware of the methods thieves use to access their information, but because they are too busy to protect their credit cards and personal information. These five tips should help keep you and your money safe this holiday season.