According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft cost Americans $1.52 billion in 2011, with complaints increasing from 1.4 million to 1.8 million year-over-year. Consumers are particularly vulnerable to identity theft during the holidays because many relax their guard and substantially increase the exposure of their financial information. Here are some of the reasons you are more exposed during the holidays:
1. Influx of temporary workers who may (or may not have) had background checks.
Some of the largest chains in America together will add more than 300,000 temporary workers during the 2012 holiday season to handle the predicted higher volume of shoppers. These include Target (80,000-90,000), Toys"R"Us (45,000), Amazon (50,000), Macy's (80,000), GameStop (17,000), Walmart (50,000) and Kohl's (52,700). While this is good for our economy, the influx of temporary workers can put consumers at a greater risk of identity theft because not all temporary employment agencies conduct background checks. This means that an unchecked temporary worker may be more likely to have a criminal history or be previously convicted of identity-theft related crimes.
2. You're using your credit card more frequently .
According to First Data Corporation, the number of credit card transactions grew by 4.3 percent in November and an additional 6.1 percent in December of last year. Every time you hand over your credit card or personal information, there is a chance for identity theft, so pay attention at the checkout line. Your credit card may be getting copied via a handheld skimmer or a cell phone picture. It could even be getting swapped out for another similar-looking credit card.
3. You pay using credit cards you rarely use the rest of the year and may not be on top of it.
Consumers often change their usual spending patterns during the holidays and may dig out an old credit card they haven't used in a while to cover holiday expenses. This year, the National Retail Federation expects holiday sales to increase 4.1 percent compared to 2011, putting the estimated total for holiday sales at $586 billion. While it's great to have a back-up credit card, consumers usually don't vigilantly check their statements and may not be as on top of the purchases they make on this card, as they are on their main credit card. This can help identity thieves get more mileage out of your credit card. Protect yourself by signing up for a free credit monitoring service from a company like Credit Sesame. Credit monitoring will alert you to changes in your credit file, so you will always know where you stand financially.
4. You may be more likely to open a store account and provide personal information to get the 10 percent store discount.
When you're shopping for the holidays and spending a lot of money on your family and friends, a 10 percent or 20 percent discount can seem especially appealing. According to IndexCreditCards.com, retail store credit cards represent the greatest portion of credit cards issued, at 38.6 percent, followed by bank credit cards at 37.7 percent. The reason this can put you at risk for identity theft is that you are filling out personal information at a store, and handing it to the clerk to get approved. That sensitive information if not fully protected or destroyed, can be copied, leaving you open to identity theft.
5. You're bargain shopping on sites you may not be familiar with or know.
During the holidays, most of us are out to get the best deal and we often choose to shop at a website that has what we're looking for at the cheapest price. Before shopping at an unfamiliar site, always check out the company first. Do they have trust seals to confirm they are legit? Are they a secure site using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)? Are they asking you to provide unusual information that most sites don't ask for when you're purchasing an item? If all of these things check out, then the site is likely safe to use. If not, shop for that particular item somewhere else.
6. You're shopping online more.
According to comScore, Inc., online retail sales increased 14 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011. When shopping online, you should consider using a credit card rather than a debit card. Credit cards have added protections through the Fair Credit Billing Act in case something goes wrong. This means you have the right to dispute charges on your credit card and can withhold payments during the investigation. If you're especially worried about identity theft, some credit card companies will generate a temporary number that can only be used for that transaction, protecting your real credit card number if a thief manages to get a hold of it. This is also a great service if you don't want a subscription to auto-renew. Banks call this service by different names including virtual account numbers (Citi) and ShopSafe (Bank of America). Know that not all credit card companies offer this service. American Express discontinued its program in 2004 and Discover stopped its program in September 2011.
7. Stores are more crowded, making it easier for pickpockets to work their magic.
Window displays, glittering holiday decorations and crowded stores provide the perfect environment for pick pockets. Not only are the shoppers more likely to be interested in checking out the décor and finding the perfect present, but they're less likely to be paying attention to their purses and wallets. The crowded stores make it easier for a pickpocket to bump into you, lift your wallet and vanish into the crowd.
8. You're traveling.
Often when you're traveling to visit family during the holidays, you're dealing with very crowded airports and are connecting to unsecured airport Internet to finish up work or take care of personal to-dos before you can officially enjoy your time off. However, surfing on an unsecured network can put you at risk for identity theft via "sidejacking." Programs like Firesheep allow someone to capture cookies transmitted over a public Wi-Fi connection and use those cookies to gain access to the unsecured email and social networking accounts of anyone using the network. Once they have access to this information they can obtain the financial information you've provided those sites. Make sure your using encrypted sites like Gmail to prevent this and know that this can also happen to your smartphone when switching from 3G to a wireless hotspot. To help protect your phone, turn on its encryption settings.
9. You're using your smartphone more .
According to Javelin Strategy & Research, smartphone owners are a third more likely to become identity theft victims than the general public due to "careless consumer usage." During the holidays, consumers can become more inclined to multi-task and take care of personal information (paying bills, etc.) on their phone as they wait in long checkout lines. Others may forget their phone at a bar or party, or set it down on a store shelf while grabbing an item they want to purchase. The amount of personal data and the ability to access financial information through apps on your phone can mean your identity is more likely to get stolen if you lose your phone.
10. You are doing more mail orders and getting more mail.
Think you're safe if you just pay for items via phone or mail? That is not the case. According to Javelin Strategy & Research, 13 percent of victims still lose their identity via offline purchases made via phone or mail. The U.S. Postal Service expects to deliver 17.9 billion Christmas cards, letters and packages between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve -- with the average amount of mail processed during the holidays at 560 million per day, up 6 percent from the usual 528 million pieces per day. The increased amount of ingoing and outgoing mail can leave you more vulnerable for identity theft, as thieves keep their eyes peeled for promising mail such as Christmas presents, checks sent to you, credit card offers or even outgoing bill payments. To protect yourself, consider getting mail box with a lock, always mail your mail from the post office and request a signature when sending/or receiving your packages to ensure they're received. When disposing of mail, make sure you shred anything with personal information on it (name, address, etc.).