Tales of Identity Theft and Five Tips to Avoid it While Holiday Shopping

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Holiday shoppers - identity theft tipsIdentity theft is a problem that isn't going away anytime soon. With more than 11 million victims in the U.S. in 2009, it's a very real problem that can become an even bigger hassle during the holiday shopping season, when we are busier (and more distracted) than usual and hunting for a good deal.

While thieves often often use a victim's identity for credit card fraud, they'll also use it to get a job or to receive health care, according to CreditCards.com. Thieves also don't care whether a victim has good credit or bad, as long as they can use their good name to commit fraud they'll be happy to steal their identity.CreditCards.com rounded up three tales of identity theft. One victim had their identity purchased on the black market, another had their's stolen by an ex and yet another became caught up in an identity-theft ring. The tales show just how easy it is to be taken and how much work it can be to clear your name.

Don Redinius, who had his identity stolen by an ex-girlfriend who went on to rack up $68,000 in debt and took anther $6,000 from a line of credit, estimates that he has spent 300 hours dealing with his stolen identity and has only resolved two out of the three accounts in question. His story isn't out of the ordinary for victims of identity theft.

"Our data indicates that identity fraud can happen to anyone at any time." Joe Reynolds, Identity Fraud Product Manager at Travelers told WalletPop via email. "Thieves don't discriminate; they prefer crimes of opportunity. So, it really becomes a matter of being vigilant and prepared this holiday season in the event identity fraud happens to you."

Travelers provided the following five tips to combat identity theft and online fraud this holiday season.

1. Before You Go Shopping, Take Inventory of Your Wallet or Purse.

According to a 2010 study of Travelers ID fraud claims, stolen wallets or purses account for the vast majority of identity fraud cases. With this in mind, think about how much of your personal information a thief would obtain if your wallet or purse were stolen. For an average trip to the mall, avoid carrying your Social Security card, birth certificate or passport unless absolutely necessary. Also, avoid carrying extra credit cards, unless you know you're going to use them.

WalletPop Recommends: Keeping the phone numbers for your credit card accounts in a note in Evernote or in Springpad so that you can have access to the numbers on your smartphone if your purse or wallet is stolen. Just be sure not to store your entire credit card number there.

2. Avoid Predictable Passwords and PINs.

While easy to remember, birthdays, street names, pet's names, children's names or consecutive numbers are predictable, even if the thief does not know you very well. Instead, it's best to create passwords that combine letters and numbers. Although convenient, writing down your password and keeping it in your wallet/purse provides an open door for thieves to access your personal information. Memorize all your passwords to ensure you're protected.

Additionally, many financial institutions offer features that add extra layers of security protection to your account. These features allow you to use an additional code or password (a number or word) when accessing your personal information.

WalletPop Recommends: Following this advice closely, especially in the wake of a recent security breach at Gawker that exposed the emails and passwords of many online commenters, which underscores the trouble with re-using passwords.

3. Review Credit Reports Before and After the Shopping Season.

Credit reports are an easy way to determine if fraud was committed with your identity. We recommend ordering two reports to look for discrepancies: one now and one after the New Year. Check these reports diligently for fraudulent activity.

If your report uncovers suspicious activity, be sure to report mistakes to the credit bureaus immediately. Consumers have the right to receive one free copy of their credit report every 12 months from Experian, Equifax or Transunion. Other popular free credit report bureaus exist that will provide information as well.

WalletPop Recommends: Visiting AnnualCreditReport.com to be sure you are on a site that offers truly free credit reports and won't charge you a monthly fee for enrolling in a program like Triple Advantage.

4. Enhance Your Computers' Defenses.

If you plan to shop online this year, there are a few basic security essentials to reduce your risk significantly. In particular, personal firewalls and security software packages with anti-virus, anti-spam and spyware detection features.

If you already have those measures in place, make sure your computer has been upgraded with the latest security patches. Many operating systems will prompt you to upgrade automatically when logging in. Additionally, make sure that you access your online financial accounts only on an encrypted website. Combining security measures with a little common sense reduces your risk of identity fraud significantly.

WalletPop Recommends: Download popular free versions of antivirus such as Avast, Microsoft and AVG and check your computer since many modern operating systems have a firewall built in.

5. After Online Shopping, Log Off Completely.

Many computers store cookies and remember passwords and other personal information, even if a window is closed. Instead, the only way to completely terminate an online shopping session is to log off. The best protection we recommend is to disallow your browser from remembering your user name and password information at all. This will ensure that your information is not saved and not easily accessible by thieves.

WalletPop Recommends: If you want to keep your browsing to yourself from the start, look for Incognito or Private Browsing modes that don't keep cookies or track the websites you've visited. This is also a good way to stop a snooping family members form figuring out what gifts you've bought them.
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