Protect Your Identity During the Holidays

Woman's hand with diamond ring working on a laptop.

How to reduce risks to your identity when shopping online.

The holiday season is in full swing, and retailers are doing whatever they can to attract online shoppers—free shipping, easy returns, coupons and bargains. It’s no wonder, with U.S. online shoppers set to spend nearly $55 billion this season, an increase of 17 percent according to marketing analyst eMarketer. Unfortunately, increased online activity only entices scam artists who, like elves in the North Pole, work overtime during the holidays. Here are five things you can do to protect your identity while shopping online.

1. Know your vendors. Shop on sites you know and trust. If you start with a Google search, you could unwittingly land in a dangerous place. Online con artists are skilled at making web destinations look and feel like a familiar or legitimate retail site. But unless you type the address directly, you can’t be sure. Planning to use a mobile device, such as a phone or tablet, for online shopping? More than one quarter of U.S. shoppers will, according to the 2012 Holiday Shopping Survey from Accenture. Download apps from each vendor so you know you’re going straight to the source.

2. Confirm the site’s security.
There are two ways to verify a website’s security. First, examine the URL in the address bar of your browser. If it starts with https://, the site is designed to withstand third-party attacks. An address beginning with http:// may be perfectly legitimate, but it isn’t secure. Another security indicator is an icon that looks like a lock, which would appear in the bottom corner of your Web browser. This universal symbol informs shoppers the site is safe. If you can’t find either marker, your Web browser may be doing the verification work for you. Online browsers such as Firefox will now warn you before making a purchase from an unsecure or untrusted site.

3. Avoid unknown networks.
Restrict online-shopping activities to your home computer, rather than a community machine at the local library or Internet café. You can run regular virus checks and updates on your hardware, but you can’t be sure a community computer is secure. Plus, a computer used by the masses is generally not a safe place to share your credit card information. If you’re out and using your own laptop or tablet, stick with known wireless networks. And always shield any personal information from prying eyes.

4. Opt for credit over debit. Granted, not everyone can be trusted to use credit cards wisely. But credit cards offer a level of fraud protection that you won’t get using debit cards. And credit card providers will likely flag identity theft activity even before you do. If you’re worried about debt, shop instead with a cash-loaded disposable gift card. There’s no fraud protection, but there is also no connection to your personal information. (It can also help you stick to your budget.)

5. Say “no” to storing information. Decline vendor offers to keep your credit card information stored in their system. It may save time, but it’s risky in the long run. Data breaches are common, even among the largest retailers. Stored information could compromise your identity in such a breach.

Remember to take security measures offline too, when shopping at the local mall or retail store. Always be aware of your wallet or purse, be cautious entering your PIN at the ATM and cash register, and leave your Social Security card at home.

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