According to the California Department of Consumer Affairs, last year nine million people became victims of identity theft. One million of those were in the state of California.
Holiday shopping is a very good opportunity for identity theft, said Charlene Zettle, director of the DCA.
Zettle advises all consumers to take extra care during the busy holiday shopping season.
"I understand that it is very busy time," Zettle said. "We can leave our purse on the counter for a moment, and that's all the time it takes for someone to get our information."
Having a shopping plan, being aware of those around the checkout counter, checking shopping receipts after the purchases, and keeping them to use as reference when the credit card bills come in are all important precautions that will make the holiday shopping safer, Zettle said.
"Be aware of those around you," she added.Criminals no longer need to steal your credit card to wreak havoc. By using a small technical devise called a skimmer, they can run your card through, extracting your number and other information in a matter of seconds. It is something that can be done right in front of the consumer because the skimmer can be hidden in the palm of someone's hand.
It was this technology that was recently found attached to gas station pumps at several service stations throughout the valley and the rest of the state. Consumers would swipe their credit card and the number would automatically be recorded onto the skimmer.
"They found it was a ring [of criminals] going up and down the state with skimmers," said Melanie Bedwell, spokesperson for the DCA.
In addition to the malls, Zettle warns consumers about ATM machines.
"Go to an ATM machine that you know, like one at a bank," Zettle said. "Make certain that you are aware of those around you … look around. Is there someone with a cell phone close by?"
She said many times a criminal is waiting behind the consumer with a cell phone camera, which in some cases can also act as a video camera. They take pictures of the Personal Identification Number (PIN) and even numbers on the ATM card.
"Shield your PIN," she cautioned.
Other advise from Zettle included what to carry in purses and wallets.
"Don't bring your Social Security card. Some consumers keep their card in their wallets; they don't need to do that," Zettle said. "Bring only the cards you need. Take very little, only what you need."
Zettle also advises consumers to be aware of their rights, especially when it comes to online shopping.
"Click with caution," she said. "Make certain you see the http:// before an address. That tells you that the personal information is scrambled."
If consumers do become a victim of identity theft they should report it not only to their credit card companies and banks also to their local law enforcement, Bedwell said. By reporting the incident, officials can keep a record of all identity thefts in the area. It also helps the consumer to have a record for their future credit report.
"Legislation has just been passed that will document ID theft under its own category," Bedwell said, referring to SB 1390. This law will help the FTC gather data on how much identity theft costs consumers.
"It is estimated the [identity theft] loss to businesses and consumers in the nation is $56.6. billion a year," Bedwell said.The new law will help track that loss more closely.
The DCA offers "Top Ten Tips For Identity Theft Protection" on its website at www.privacy.ca.gov.