Identity theft is one of today’s most pervasive and insidious crimes. It can disrupt your life, put you in jail for a crime an identity thief commits in your name, or even mix up the thief’s medical information with your own and mess up your medical care.
The holiday season may be the most wonderful time of the year (as Andy Williams used to sing) but for identity thieves it is even better. The opportunities to steal your identity increase just when many of us are apt to let down our guard.
But prevention is relatively easy if you follow some simple rules. Here are some tips to keep you Ho Ho Hoing instead of Ho Ho Oh noing.
As despicable as it is, scam artists (the only group of criminals we refer to as artists) pose as phony charities to solicit money. You may receive an email or a telephone call from someone purporting to represent a charity (even if you are on the federal “do not call” list, the law provides for an exception for charities). Things to remember:
- Whenever you receive an email or telephone appeal, you have no way of knowing whether it’s legitimate or not
- Many phony charities have names that are remarkably similar to that of legitimate charities. For instance, the American Cancer Society legitimate while the National Cancer Society is a scam.
- If you are interested in making a charitable donation, check out the organization on www.charitynavigator.org. This website will tell you whether the charity is a scam or not, and how much of your donation goes to administrative costs and fund raising instead of actual charitable work. If administrative costs exceed 25 percent, consider donating elsewhere.
- Your best bet is to go directly to the real website of the charity you want to help. Find out how to give online or where to mail your donation.
Scams and theft also abound in the for-profit world, too. For instance, online shopping is convenient, but it also presents dangers. Here’s how to avoid trouble:
- Make sure that the company you are dealing with encrypts its data so your credit card information and other personal information is protected. The URL should start with “https” and not just “http.” The extra letter indicates that your information is being encrypted.
- Make sure that the computer you are using is equipped with a good firewall and updated security software.
- When you are shopping using your smartphone or other portable device, make sure that your device is protected with a complex password and updated security software. Beware of using public wifi, which is easy for identity thieves to hack into — in fact, don’t use public wifi for financial transactions of any kind.
Shopping in stores can also present problems:
- Never use your debit card for purchasing goods at a store. Unlike your credit card (which is protected by law from unauthorized charges over $50), there is potentially no limit to your debit-card liability. Use debit cards only when drawing out cash at ATMs.
- When using your credit card in a store, don’t let it leave your sight because rogue clerks can take your card and swipe it through a small electronic “skimmer” that can steal all of the card’s information and give a thief access to your account
- Don’t use the small credit card swipers that are found on the front of many retail sales counters. Even though they are convenient and your card never leaves your hand, these machines are more susceptible to hacking than the swipers that are a part of the cash register. The recent hacking of customer credit and debit card information at Barnes & Noble resulted when thieves tampered with counter credit card processing machines.
The holiday season is supposed to be fun. Don’t let a thief ruin it. For the most up to date information on scams and identity theft threats you can go to www.scamicide.com.
Steven J. Weisman is a senior lecturer of Law, Tax and Financial Planning at Bentley University.