“Might I have another lump of coal for the fire, Mr. Scrooge?”
-Bob Cratchit (Dickens’ A Christmas Carol)
What in the world do we have to learn from Ebenezer Scrooge about protecting our identities during the busy holiday season?
Scrooge was a miserly old git who wouldn’t share anything – his coal, his wealth, his love. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future scared him into realizing that giving generously is what the holidays (and life) are all about. But the ghosts forgot to mention that as he donated his wealth, paid for Tiny Tim’s medical care and purchased gifts for all of London, he should continue to be miserly with his personal information!
Distraction is our worst enemy. During the holidays, in addition to spending more money, we tend to be busier, more stressed-out and less careful than other times of the year. Identity thieves take advantage of our distraction to perform information extraction. In the spirit of Charles Dickens, here are Scrooge’s Top 10 Holiday Prevention Tips:
- Protect your home. Your greatest risk during the busy-ness is all of the extra people that come into your home. It makes it very easy to pocket a check book that’s on your desk or a brokerage statement in your filing cabinet. We’d all like to believe that the people we know wouldn’t steal from us. Unfortunately, statistics prove that identity theft is committed by someone the victim knows approximately 30-50% of the time. I recommend that you shred every document you don’t need and purchase a Sentry Safe fire-safe to lock up your valuable identity documents. (No, I don’t make money if you buy a Sentry Safe – good question). These make great gifts for people you care about!
- Use your credit card. Don’t use checks and don’t use a debit card. When you use either of these forms of payment, the money is drawn directly from your bank account. If fraud does occur, it’s harder to get the money reimbursed and in the meantime, you don’t have the money to spend. When you use a credit card, nothing is withdrawn from your bank account. In addition, credit cards generally give you a longer period (90 days) to catch the fraud before you are held liable. Debit cards generally give you 30 days.
- Leave your purse in the trunk. For women, take a wallet that fits in your coat pocket and leave your purse in the trunk, or at home. It is too easy to steal a purse (30% of all identity theft) that is sitting at your feet as you pay or have lunch. The very best advice is to take your drivers license and one or two credit cards with you shopping and store them in your front pocket. The chances that you will lose them decreases exponentially as you leave more at home. If you must have a purse, use one that zips and hangs in front of you.
- Watch your statements. Most forms of holiday identity theft can be caught simply by monitoring your checking, debit and credit card accounts frequently. Remember, the pain of this crime gets much worse if you don’t catch it quickly. By monitoring your financial statements, you will catch credit card and check theft immediately. I recommend that you monitor your accounts online, which is fast, convenient and smart. Even better, sign up for automatic account alerts when any transaction occurs on your account. If you spend $1 at a store, you receive an email notifying you of the purchase. If you receive an email for an amount you didn’t spend – bingo – you’re probably a victim of fraud. Visit your bank online to set up account alerts.
- Give yourself the gift of Identity Monitoring. It is impossible to track all of the ways our identities are exposed, which is why I use identity monitoring. To learn about the best way to monitor your online identity (credit reports, non-credit loans, cyber attacks, public records, etc.), read my review of identity monitoring services and learn how to save almost 50% on the best service available.
- Shop on secure websites. Shopping online can be safer for your identity than shopping in person. But you need to make sure you adequately protect your computer, and that you shop on secure websites. Sites with a good reputation (Amazon, Sears, Lands End, Eddie Bauer – names you easily recognize) are a good place to start. When you begin shopping, make sure that the website address in your browser changes from http:\ to https:\ – this lets you know that your private information (name, credit card number, address, phone) will be encrypted so that hackers can’t steal it. Finally, if the Lock symbol appears in the bottom right-hand corner of your browser, click on it and make sure that the security certificate belongs to the store at which you are shopping.
- Don’t trust your email. There are so many holiday scams by email that you should read everything with an enormous grain of salt. If someone is promising you something for nothing (free gift, free money, etc.), don’t buy it. If they are threatening to close your account if you don’t update information online, don’t buy it. If you don’t know the person on the other end of the email, don’t believe it. Delete it.
- Be a Scrooge with what you say. Don’t give your credit card number (or Social Security Number) over the phone if someone is within earshot. Be especially careful about what information you give away over your cell phone in public. When you are typing your PIN into your ATM or the credit card swiper at the store, cover up your fingers so that the person behind you can’t see. There are so many fraud schemes once someone has your PIN I can’t even describe them here.
- Rotate your credit cards. After the busy holiday shopping season is over, call your credit card company and ask them to issue you a new card (you can tell them that you are concerned that your credit card number was stolen). Make sure they transfer your credit limit to the new account, along with any miles or perks you have attached to that card. Also, make sure than any auto-pay charges set up on your card are transferred to the new card (e.g., if you auto-pay your cell phone bill on your credit card each month, you’ll need to call your cell phone provider and give them the new credit card number). By rotating your credit card in this way, you are making sure that all of the personal data sitting in retail databases is no longer valid. That way, if they lose the credit card number that you used during holiday shopping, it will no longer be valid.
- Hire an identity theft speaker for your next corporate or association event. Okay, that was a shameless plug for my motivational identity theft speeches, but that’s how I make a difference in this world and I guarantee that educating your organization about identity theft will directly improve your bottom line. Corporate privacy begins with personal privacy. Blue Cross, Pfizer, The Federal Reserve Bank, Prudential Real Estate, AIG, AARP and my other recent clients agree. Read what they have to say. Mention this blog post and receive $1500 worth of Stolen Lives at no cost when you book a speech. Unclear about why you would hire an identity theft speaker for your next event? Visit my FAQs page.
Please remember that your private information is YOUR PROPERTY. Treat it with care and have safe and happy holidays.