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Two years ago, hackers planted malware in Target’s point-of-sale system and stole 40 million credit card and debit card numbers, in addition to 70 million names, addresses, email addresses and phone numbers of Target shoppers. Worse data breaches have occurred since then, but because the Target breach happened during the Black Friday weekend and early December, it will long be associated with the security risks of holiday shopping. Those risks are present when you shop in stores and online.
Half of consumers who responded to an online holiday shopping survey from Experian said they’re worried about identity theft. Among millennials, concern is more common: 60% said they’re worried about identity theft this holiday season. Most consumers surveyed said they see online shopping and shopping in stores equally risky. The online poll included responses from 1,035 U.S. adults, but is not representative of the U.S. adult population.
Consumers’ concerns make sense: People shop more than ever in November and December, making retailers a target (no pun intended) for hackers. Though many credit card issuers and retailers have enabled chip-and-signature technology (which is supposed to be harder to counterfeit than credit cards with traditional magnetic stripe technology), the new security measures are far from universal in the U.S. Even when they’re used, chip credit cards are not impervious to theft, so consumers have to remain vigilant for signs of fraud.
Preventing identity theft is practically impossible, but there are many steps consumers can take to protect themselves from the financial damage that sometimes comes with it. First of all, it’s smart to monitor your financial accounts for suspicious activity or unauthorized transactions. With online banking and mobile applications, that’s pretty easy to do on a regular, if not daily, basis.
According to Experian’s survey, a majority of shoppers are taking steps to protect their information while shopping online: 54% said they’ll only shop on personal Internet connections (as opposed to public networks, which can be more susceptible to hackers), 52% said they’ll check to see if the site is secure, 51% said they’ll log out of their accounts after shopping and 48% said they’ll go directly to websites rather than click on links.
On top of that, regularly reviewing your credit helps you spot fraudulent activity beyond card theft. If someone gets your personal information and uses it to open an account in your name, it should show up on your credit report, and if you’re checking yours, you’ll be able to spot, dispute and prevent deeper fraud. You can watch out for identity theft by viewing your your free credit report summary every 30 days on Credit.com.
You could also consider a credit freeze to prevent new account fraud, though it usually costs a few dollars to do so at each of the three major credit reporting agencies. If you want to open a new account that requires a credit check — a credit card, a loan or even a new cellphone or utility service — you’ll need to un-freeze, or thaw, your credit reports, which often has fees, as well.
More than anything, it’s important to be aware of your risk for identity theft all year round, not just during the holidays. It’s a constant threat, but you can minimize the damage it causes by knowing the signs your identity has been stolen and how to respond if you see them.