Boxes move along a conveyor belt inside an Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment center in Robbinsville, New Jersey, U.S., on Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. Photographer: David Williams/Bloomberg
Americans love to shop – especially over the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), more than 154 million consumers were expected to shop this weekend, up from 151 million shoppers in 2015 . More than 4 in 10 of those shoppers went online. Even more Americans are expected to log on today, Cyber Monday, as 122 million Americans go online shopping.
As retailers gear up to be busy, so, too, will scammers and thieves. A 2016 Identity Fraud Study released by Javelin Strategy & Research found that the number of identity fraud victims increased to 13.1 million consumers in 2016, up 3% from 12.7 million consumers in 2015. There is some good news, though: the amount stolen has decreased to $15 billion, a 6% decline from $16 billion stolen in 2015. Still, that’s billions of dollars too many.
Even when thieves don’t target your bank accounts, they can use your identity to perpetrate other frauds – like identity theft-related tax fraud. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) cites “remarkable progress” when it comes to efforts to protect taxpayers. The results of those efforts, reported IRS Commissioner Koskinen earlier this month, include fewer bad returns, fewer bad refunds, and fewer taxpayers becoming victims. Identity theft affidavits, which are affidavits filed with the IRS by taxpayers claiming they were victims of identity theft, dropped to 237,750 during the first nine months of 2016, a nearly 50% declined, as compared to the same period in 2015 when 512,278 affidavits were filed. Koskinen cites tighter security measures as one reason for the decline but also singled out taxpayer education initiatives: the more you know about how to protect yourself, the better chance you have not to be a victim.
With that in mind, here are 13 tips help you protect yourself from identity theft not only on Cyber Monday but throughout the year:
1. Use secure connections. The NRF reports that more than 28 million people, or about a quarter of Cyber Monday shoppers, will shop from a mobile device this year. If you’re one of those surfing the web looking for deals, especially on mobile, be smart. Don’t connect to an unknown or insecure wi-fi connection. If you have an alternative connection available like using cellular data, consider using that instead. If you must connect using public wi-fi, use a VPN (virtual private network). And save the really sensitive data – like online banking – for later.
2. Watch the downloads. You’ve probably seen a ton of ads for online shopping apps which promise to save you money. Do your research before you click. Read reviews and be cautious of discount shopping apps that pop up overnight. Consider trusted, well-reviewed apps available through online stores such as Apple’s app store on iTunes or Google Play – don’t click on apps advertised in unsolicited emails.
3. Clip coupons with care. My mom is a coupon queen but she sticks to paper where the worst that can happen is that she gets a paper cut. When searching for online coupons, however, you could be at risk for malware or phishing scams since some websites claim to offer online coupons and promotion codes if you click a link. Resist the temptation to follow links from unsolicited emails or coupon-heavy sites. If you’re fairly certain that a promotion code is the real thing, copy and paste the code (not the link) directly into the retailer’s site at checkout.
4. Don’t be careless with paper. With so much emphasis on internet security, it’s easy to forget to safeguard paper documents. If you must print out confirmation of a purchase, don’t leave it in a shared printer or drop it in the floor of your car. If you save receipts to compare with your bank or credit card statements (a good practice), tuck them away safely so that you can file the copies you need and shred the ones that you don’t. Take the same care with credit card statements, bank receipts, and copies of tax returns.
5. Keep your mailing address current. We’re an increasingly mobile society: I know, as I just moved recently. When you move, make sure that your mailing address has been updated on your trusted shopping sites, as well as with your financial institutions, credit reporting agencies, and tax authorities so that your packages and important mail doesn’t end up in the wrong hands. To easily change your address with IRS, file a federal form 8822, Change of Address (downloads as a pdf). You should also file a change of address with the US Postal Service; you can make the change online here.
6. Be wary of those package tracking emails. Around the time of my move, a laptop that was shipped to me went missing. It turns out that the shipper used the wrong address even though I had updated the address before shipment. I discovered the error by checking the tracking number directly on the FedEx website – online tracking info is typically available for packages shipped via FedEx, UPS, and USPS (if the shipper paid for tracking). Online tracking can be a great tool for keeping tabs on your Cyber Monday packages but don’t get fooled by spammy emails like this one:
Or this one:
Emails which purport to provide information about your package should include details about the package (such as the shipper’s info) which are easily accessible without clicking through links or downloading or unzipping files. Tracking info should get the same treatment as coupon codes: copy and paste the tracking number (not the link) directly into the shipping company’s website (i.e. www.fedex.com).
7. Say yes to credit. For years, I said no to credit cards – until my debit card was compromised multiple times. Even when you’re super careful, you don’t know how careless other parties may be with your data. If a thief gets your debit card information, they may easily clean out your checking account in a matter of minutes and it can take weeks to have the money returned. In contrast, you have the opportunity to immediately contest bogus charges posted to your credit card and your liability may be capped, providing you with more protection.
8. Keep an eye on bank and credit card statements. Just because your cards are still in your wallet doesn’t mean that you’re off the hook when it comes to fraud. You don’t have to be obsessive but do check your accounts from time to time to make sure that the recorded transactions are yours. Investigate and immediately report any suspicious activity.
10. Be stingy with your Social Security Number. We’re so used to filling out forms online that we may not even blink when we’re asked for information that isn’t necessary. You don’t need to give out your Social Security number (or mother’s maiden name) to buy a book or pair of jeans online. If there’s not a legitimate purpose for doing so, don’t provide your Social Security Number and don’t submit it online. (For more on Social Security numbers and privacy, click here.)
11. Use smart passwords. Chances are, you have a number of websites that require passwords, and it can be tempting to cut corners. Don’t. Use secure passwords and update them regularly. Don’t use the same password for multiple sites (when shopping, consider using a different password for each retailer). If you’re like me and you need help with all of those passwords, consider using a password manager like LastPass.
12. Monitor your credit report. By law, you’re entitled to one free copy of your credit report each year from each of the major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion): that’s a total of three reports every year (you may be entitled to additional free copies if you’re the victim of identity theft). To claim your free copy, visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com or call 1.877.322.8228. Review your credit report just like you do your credit card or banking statements: check to make sure that the transactions and credit requests are those that you’ve approved.
13. Pay attention to fraud alerts. Many banks, like mine, will alert you whenever there’s a suspicious transaction on your account. Ask if your bank or lender has fraud alerts – and use them.
Even if you are super diligent, the reality is that everyone is vulnerable to identity theft. Be smart and protect yourself – especially when shopping or using credit cards online.
If you find out that your data has been compromised, take a deep breath and then make an effort to mitigate any damage to your credit or your accounts, including contact your financial institution if you’ve detected fraud – you may need to get a new card, switch an account, or even get a credit freeze (rules vary by state). You may also want to file a complaint with the FTC at identitytheft.gov. If the identity theft is related to your taxes, including finding out that someone has filed a tax return using your Social Security Number, you should immediately respond to any IRS notice and complete federal form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit (downloads as a pdf), if necessary. For more on taxpayer related identity theft, check out the IRS Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft.
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