Five Ways to Protect Your Identity During the Holidays

Identity thieves steal more than 10 million identities each year. To make sure yours isn’t one of them, consider these tips for preventing, managing and responding to identity theft, during the holiday season and all year long

It was the kind of gift that nobody wants to find in their stocking: In 2001, shortly after moving to South Florida from Massachusetts, Denise Richardson got a call from her credit card company. Someone had purchased $9,000 worth of airline tickets using her credit card – and they’d done it from more than 5,000 miles away, in Italy.

“Obviously, it wasn’t me,” says Richardson, a former real estate paralegal turned consumer protection advocate. That was Richardson’s first brush with identity theft. Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t her last. A year later, she got another call from a different credit card company. “They asked if by chance I’d been in Canada the day before,” Richardson continues. “I knew immediately what that meant – I had to cancel all of my credit cards – and started realizing something wasn’t right.”

In fact, something was very wrong. Somehow – to this day, she doesn’t know how – Richardson’s information had gotten out of her wallet and into the hands of identity thieves. And nearly 10 years later, it’s still there.

“My latest battle was in December 2009,” says Richardson, who discovered two unusual charges from a cable company on her credit card statement. Upon investigating them, she found out that a woman several cities away had used her credit card to have cable TV installed in her apartment. The same woman, Richardson later found out, also had opened an entirely new credit card in her name. “I thought this woman only had my credit card information. Come to find out, she also had my Social Security Number, my date of birth and my name. I often wonder who this woman is and what else she’s doing in my name.”

Although it took her many months, Richardson – now a Certified Identity Theft Risk Management Specialist – finally managed to clean up the messes others left on her credit report. She’s even used her experiences to write a book “Give Me Back My Credit!” She always wonders, however, what will happen next, and when. “You feel so violated, but you have no control over it,” she says. “You can’t stop it. You can only plan for it.”

Although it’s vital all year long, planning for it is especially important during the holidays, when shopping and crowds mix to create a perfect storm of opportunity for identity thieves. “The holiday season is peak season for thieves,” Richardson says. “Their imaginations are working overtime as they busily find new and innovative ways to steal your money – and you.”

A Growing Problem

Identity theft is a bigger problem today than it’s ever been before, according to San Francisco-based Javelin Strategy & Research, which early this year released the results of a new study in which it found that:

  • The number of identity fraud victims in the United States increased 12% in 2009 to 11.1 million adults – or 4.8% of the population.
  • The total annual fraud amount increased by 12.5% in 2009 to $54 billion.
  • Consumers spend an average of 21 hours resolving identity theft incidents.
  • Of all identity fraud activity, 39% involved opening a new credit card account in 2009, up from 33% in 2008.

“Identity theft affects somewhere between 5% and 10% of Americans,” says Tom Rusin, CEO of Affinion Financial Group, a Norwalk, Conn.-based company that provides identity theft protection to consumers via their banks. “That may not sound like much, but believe me, you do not want to be one of those people.”

Because computers and shopping malls are ground zero for identity theft, the easiest time to become one of those people, unfortunately, is during the holidays.

“Holiday shopping can be a lot of fun, but it can also place you at greater risk for identity theft,” Richardson says. “If you are like most consumers, your wallet is stuffed with credit and debit cards and your purse is overflowing with a variety of items. In all likelihood, you won’t even discover that your wallet is stolen or your cell phone is missing until you arrive at the cashier’s desk.”

What You Can Do

Although you can’t totally prevent identity theft, you can definitely plan for it, according to Richardson and Rusin, who suggest taking the following steps to minimize your risk:

1. Look for Smoke

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Before you begin your holiday shopping, Rusin recommends outfitting your identity with a figurative smoke detector by signing up for an identity protection service such as ID Secure available at First Midwest, which will monitor your credit report, public records and even Internet chat rooms in real time in order to look for evidence of identity theft. If they find it, they’ll contact you directly to report it, then help you take action to stop and resolve it.

2. Protect Your Credit

An identity protection service can be your eyes and ears, alerting you of potential identity threats immediately after they’ve happened. To stop them before they happen, however, holiday shoppers should take steps to protect their credit report. Contact each of the three credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – to put a fraud alert on your credit report. When you do, the credit bureaus will put a note on your credit report – completely free of charge – that requires anyone issuing new credit in your name to contact you for permission to do so.

For even more protection, consider paying the credit bureaus for a credit freeze, which is more powerful than a fraud alert because it requires you to call the bureaus and have them “unlock” your credit report before anyone can access it.

3. Shop Smart

Protecting your credit report is critical. During the holidays especially, however, so is protecting your actual credit cards, Richardson says. To keep what she calls “Santa fraud” away, she suggests thinning your wallet before you go shopping. You don’t need a wallet full of cards to make purchases, so bring only the ones you need, as fewer cards means fewer accounts to report if your wallet’s stolen. Also, use only ATMs in secured locations, like banks, and remember to secure your GPS, phone or laptop – all of which contain sensitive information – if you leave them in your car, storing them in the trunk or underneath a seat so that thieves in the parking lot can’t see them. Finally, guard your information while shopping by blocking the view of anyone who is standing too close to you at the register, and by refusing to verbally provide personal information like your Social Security Number. If a clerk needs your information, write it down on a piece of paper and then destroy it.

4. Secure Your Computer

Of course, holiday shoppers are just as vulnerable on the Internet as they are at the mall. Maybe even more so, according to Richardson, who cautions consumers to avoid shopping on public computers – at the library, for instance. She recommends shopping only on secure websites, which are marked by a padlock icon in the status bar of your web browser and by a secure web address – “https” versus “http” – once you proceed to the checkout.

Even when you’re not shopping, remember: The Internet is always on. Rusin therefore stresses the importance of installing a firewall to protect your home and office computers from hackers, who can use your wireless connection – if it’s not password-protected – to access your computer and everything on it, including online banking information, usernames and passwords. Also, he says, consumers should supplement antivirus software with anti-spyware and anti-phishing software, both of which can help you safeguard your personal information.

5. Be Careful, Cautious

Although you can’t stop identity thieves, you can slow them down by being constantly vigilant, according to Rusin, who recommends purchasing a shredder – a must-have stocking stuffer, he says – and shredding all sensitive documents before they go in the garbage. This includes credit card statements, envelopes and even “junk” mail that has your name on it. Practice the same vigilance online, he adds, by regularly changing your usernames and passwords – especially on websites where you make purchases, each of which should have a different username and password to prevent thieves who steal one virtual shopping cart from stealing another. Although it’s inconvenient, he says, it’s also “pretty darn important.”

Forget your waistline: This holiday season, resolve to reduce your risk, instead, Rusin concludes. “It just isn’t worth it to let yourself go unprotected,” he says. “One day, I think Americans are going to look at identity theft protection like insurance: Almost everybody’s going to have it.” 

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