Holiday shoppers are out in full force, and so are identity thieves. This time of year, amid the holiday bustle, experts say you would be wise to take the time to protect your personal information.
"Fraudsters step up their activity because there's more prey," said Marc Gaffan, director of product marketing for RSA, the security division of corporate technology-provider EMC Corp.
Added Beth Givens, founder and director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a non-profit consumer advocacy group: "People are busy, often stressed out and likely to be spending more money than usual. So they may not be as careful as other times of the year."
But you can keep your holidays merry with some precautions.-- Pay with credit, not debit
Although debit cards may keep you from racking up high-interest debt, they're not as secure as credit cards, experts said.
The reason: With a debit card, money is drawn directly from your checking account. And though most banks replenish funds within days of being notified of any fraud, you may have bills due in the meantime.
With a credit card, you're not out any cash.
"I'd like to see debit cards and checkbooks left at home during the shopping season," said Linda Foley, founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a non-profit consumer advocacy group. "Get a prepaid credit card if you have a problem with debt."
-- Shop secure Web sites
If you are shopping online this year, don't hand over your credit card information without checking the site's security.
The first clue: The Web address should change from "http" to "https." The "s" indicates that your personal information will be encoded, thwarting hackers.
The second clue: You should see a yellow lock appear in the URL bar or in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen.
Click on that lock, which contains information about the site's security certificate. If it's made out to the name of the store, you're on a legitimate site.
"You can't fake what's in the lock," Gaffan said.
Also, be skeptical with e-mail. Many fraudsters use holiday messages to coax you into revealing personal information. For example, you may be asked to sign on to your e-banking account to redeem a holiday coupon or to go to a retailer's "alternative" site because the system is overloaded.
"A holiday greeting makes it sound warm and fuzzy," Gaffan said.
But these messages are almost always bogus, so delete them.
-- Be tight-lipped
With a long holiday to-do list, you may be shopping on the go, placing orders over your cell phone during your train ride home or shopping online from the airport. If you do, be wary about who may be listening or watching.
"Cover what you're typing, like you would when you take a test," said Foley of the Identity Theft Resource Center. "And don't read your credit card number out loud in a public space."
Also, stores are crowded this time of year, so men, keep your wallet in a front pocket, and ladies, use a purse that zips and hangs in front of you.
-- Read your statements
When the bills start rolling in, read through them carefully and right away. The quicker you spot a problem, the easier it is to correct.
You may catch a thief before he or she spends more on your card.
You also won't be held responsible for erroneous charges. Federal law limits your liability to $50 when you shop with a credit card, as long as you report the fraud within 60 days of the end of your billing cycle.
-- Don't overreact
If you spot suspicious activity, call your issuer to cancel the card, specifying that the account is never to be reopened.
That way, there's no chance the card will be reactivated. Your issuer will send you a new card with a different account number.
Foley also recommends that you file an incident report with your local police department. Police may be able to trace the purchases, and, should a question about the account come up in the future, you have paperwork to document your case.
With your police report in hand, you're done. You don't need to cancel your other cards.
Instead, relax and focus on what's really important: enjoying the holidays.
E-mail Carolyn Bigda at email@example.com.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times