Preventing Fraud During the Holidays
Identity theft is always a threat for consumers, but cybercriminals are especially active during the holiday season. As you gear up for your end-of-year spending, which is occurring more and more online, it's crucial to take steps to protect yourself and your information as much as possible.
There's no surefire way to stop all fraud, but here are some steps you can take to limit your vulnerabilities and make it harder for criminals to take advantage of you.
Vet Your Emails
Phishing is the practice of sending fraudulent emails that look similar to ones sent from legitimate sources. These emails are designed to trick you into divulging personal information that thieves can use to gain access to your accounts, open new accounts in your name and more.
In some cases, phishing emails may include links or attachments that trigger a download of malware when you click on them. Once this occurs, the hackers can take over your computer and steal information found on it.
Here are some ways you can tell the difference between a phishing email and a legitimate one:
- Don't give out information: Phishing emails generally ask for information, such as a password, Social Security number or credit card number, that you wouldn't normally give through that channel. Contact the company directly to see if the request is valid.
- Don't let your emotions betray you: A fraudulent message may try to create urgency by telling you that your account has been compromised or there's some other problem that needs to be addressed immediately. This can be scary, but it's crucial that you verify before sharing any information.
- Look for differences: Phishing emails may look similar to an email from a source you trust, but there may be some minor differences, such as a less professional-looking format, some misspelled words or poor grammar.
- Don't open attachments: They may provide a "coupon" that requires you to download an attachment, but it's uncommon for retailers to add attachments to their emails. Also, if the email includes a link, hover your cursor over it, and your browser will show you the address (which you can use to verify its source).
- Check the address: Phishing emails may have an email address from a different domain, making it an easy way to spot and avoid fraudulent messages.
Note that some phishing attacks can also occur over text message, so follow these same steps to protect your identity.
Safeguard Your Online Accounts
If identity thieves can't get hold of your personal information, they may try to steal your credit or debit card information instead.
If you shop online regularly, you likely have accounts with a long list of retailers. If you use the same password for many or all of them and a hacker manages to steal that information, you could be giving them free rein to log in and make purchases across several accounts.
There are a few things you can do to protect your online accounts from criminals:
Use multi-factor authentication: With this security measure, the retailer will either send you an email or a text message when you or anyone else tries to log in from an unknown device. So if you receive a message and you didn't try to log in, you'll know that someone might be trying to commit fraud.
Create unique passwords: One of the best practices for online activity, in general, is to use a different password for each online account you have—and preferably a long combination of letters, numbers and special characters. It can be challenging to keep track of so many passwords. You can use a password manager or other tools to help you keep track of them.
Limit your payment methods: Even with all of your precautionary measures, it's still possible for hackers to get into one of your accounts. To limit how much damage they can do, try to limit how many payment methods you keep on file with each retailer. That way, you'll only need to cancel one or two credit or debit cards instead of several.
With some banks, you can also set up virtual card numbers that you can use for individual retailers. These numbers are tied to your credit card account but don't reveal the real card number. That way, if someone uses one of your virtual numbers, you can simply cancel that number instead of your original account.
Shop Online Securely
If you're not careful, hackers can take advantage of unsecure connections—typically the network you're using or the website itself—to steal your information.
If you're on a public Wi-Fi network that anyone can use, such as the one provided by a coffee shop, airport or retailer, use a virtual private network (VPN) to secure your connection when you're online.
There are some free VPN services, but they may try to make money in other ways, such as selling your data to third parties or using advertisements. If you want to avoid that and can't afford a paid service, try to avoid making purchases or handling personal information when you're on public networks.
Even if you're on a VPN or your home's Wi-Fi network, hackers may still be able to "eavesdrop" on your connection with a website if the site itself isn't secure. An easy way to determine this is to check the address bar. If the website's address begins with HTTPS, you're good. If not, it'll say HTTP instead. Always avoid providing any personal or payment information on a website that isn't secure.
Stop Porch Pirates in Their Tracks
While online security is crucial during the holidays, there's still a threat that someone will steal your packages off your porch. Depending on where you live and the courier you use, there are a few ways you can protect yourself from this form of theft:
- Buy a security camera: If you can afford it, buying a security camera or using a smart video doorbell may deter some porch pirates from trying to steal your stuff. It's not a guarantee, though.
- Receive deliveries at work: If your employer allows it, consider having your packages delivered to you at your place of employment, so they don't sit on your porch for hours until you get home.
- Ask for help: If you have a neighbor who is home during the day, ask them if they would mind grabbing your package for you and keeping it until you can pick it up.
- Opt-out of delivery: Some couriers, including USPS, FedEx and UPS, may give you the option to have your packages held at their location, where you can pick it up as soon as it's available.
Some of these approaches may make the process of receiving packages less convenient, but it can prevent a difficult situation when a retailer is unwilling to replace the stolen items.
The Bottom Line
Becoming a victim of fraud can not only ruin the festive mood of the holidays, but it can also have long-lasting consequences. As a result, it's essential to keep fraud prevention strategies in mind as you shop online and take steps to protect the things you buy once they've been delivered.
Again, there's no way to eliminate the potential of fraud entirely, but using these and other fraud prevention tips can help reduce your exposure significantly.