As recently as a few years ago, the major perils of the holiday shopping season included bumper-to-bumper traffic to get to your local mall, packed parking lots once you got there, and perhaps even inclement weather as icing on the cake.
Today's nightmare is far different for the American consumer.
The biggest threat could be thousands of miles away
The advents of the Internet and mobile shopping have made it easier to bring consumers and their merchandise together than ever before. They've also given criminals considerably more opportunities to steal your identity or account information from the comfort of their own homes.
According to a 2011 report by PNC Bank, credit card fraud rose by an average 19% during the holiday season. Criminals know shoppers will be out and about, so it's certainly prime time for them to attempt to catch unsuspecting victims off guard.
We certainly don't have to look very far to understand just how smart criminals have become. Since the 2013 holiday season, we've learned of data breaches at retail giants Target, Home Depot, and Michael's, insurers Anthem and Community Health Systems, and banking giant JPMorgan Chase. Even the IRS has been a target: Nearly 15,000 fraudulent returns were submitted by sophisticated identity thieves who made off with a total of $50 million in refunds. This is just a sample -- there are far more instances we could detail.
Seven ways to nip identity theft in the bud this holiday season
The point here is simple: It's up to you to protect your identity, data, and money this holiday season. Following these seven simple steps should substantially lower your chances of becoming a victim of identity theft or credit card fraud.
1. Use your credit card instead of your debit card
One of the best moves you can make this holiday season is to shop with a credit card, not your debit card. Debit cards pull money directly out of your account, and your bank may not offer you protection against identity theft or fraudulent purchases. Even if your bank does, it could take days or weeks to sort everything out, potentially leaving your money frozen in your account.
The advantage of a credit card is that most credit card companies cover their consumers from fraudulent activity. Lenders do require consumers to report fraudulent activity in a fairly timely manner (within 90 days), but using a credit card will keep money from coming directly out of your bank account.
According to Bankrate, MasterCard (NYSE:MA) and Visa (NYSE:V) both offer purchase protection, with Visa offering to "replace, repair, or reimburse cardholders for eligible purchases bought entirely by Visa Signature cards." Visa sets a maximum amount of $500 per claim and $50,000 per cardholder.
2. Focus on retailers with EMV-capable terminals
It's perhaps the most significant change we've witnessed in the credit card industry in some time, but issuers such as Visa and MasterCard have rolled out the EMV credit card, which stands for Europay MasterCard and Visa, to better protect the consumer this holiday season and beyond.
Instead of relying solely on the magnetic stripe on the back of a credit card, which can leave you vulnerable to skimming machines that can steal your vital information, EMV cards have embedded chips that transmit and receive data to safely complete your purchase, when used with an EMV-capable terminal. Utilizing an EMV card with EMV-capable terminals will drastically reduce your chances of having your card data stolen this holiday season, since it takes skimmers out of the picture.
3. Check your credit card statements regularly
This is something you should be doing regardless of the time of year, but pay extra close attention to your credit card statements during the holiday season.
Save your receipts and scrutinize each purchase on your bill, because credit and identity thieves don't always make major purchases on your dime. Thieves understand that consumers are much more likely to overlook a small purchase than a large one, so they may keep their fraudulent purchases below a certain amount in the hopes that they'll be able to defraud you repeatedly over an extended period. This is especially true for joint accounts where one spouse may just assume the other spouse made a purchase. Having your receipts handy will make it a lot easier to compare your activity to your printed or online statement. If you find any discrepancies, report them to your credit issuer or bank immediately.
4. Beware of phishing
"Phishing" is a scam where a criminal attempts to impersonate a trustworthy business through email in order to get you to reveal your vital information, and it's one of the more successful tactics criminals use to get people's credit card and Social Security numbers, especially during the holiday season.
For example, you may have purchased a number of gifts online from a major retailer. A few days, later you receive an email that suggests there was a problem with your order, and asks you to supply your credit card information to help the seller locate your order. Voila! The thieves now have your credit card information. The reason this scam works so well during the at this time of year is that retailers are blasting consumers' email boxes with offers on a daily basis, making it easier for phishing emails to blend in.
The easiest way to avoid being a phishing victim is to really scrutinize the source of the email, and if there are concerns, to speak with a customer service representative based on the contact information found on a company's secure home page. Never assume a phone number in an email is legitimate.
5. Be wary of public Wi-Fi
Consumers should also be wary of where they're sitting down to do their online shopping this holiday season. Regardless of whether you place an order from your desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile device, if you don't have a firewall in place to protect your data, it could be compromised by thieves.
What's the easiest way to secure your data? Simple: Try to limit your online purchases to the comfort of your home where you (hopefully) have a firewall protecting your devices. Making an online purchase in a public mall or coffee shop exposes you to Wi-Fi that is likely not protected. It's an invitation for sophisticated thieves to steal your account information.
6. Keep your purchase history off social media
This one especially goes out to teens and millennials: Keep your purchase history, holiday "loot," and personal information off social media.
Identity and credit card thieves thrive on information; the more they can gather on you, the better the odds they can convince your bank, a retailer, or a credit lender that they are in fact you. Even simple information such as your date of birth, phone number, or address, which can easily be found on some social media profiles, can give a criminal enough information to open a fraudulent credit account in your name. Lock down your privacy settings on social media and keep your purchase history off sites like Facebook and Twitter this holiday season.
7. Minimize opening new accounts
Finally, be wary about opening too many new credit accounts this holiday season. Any time you have to hand out your Social Security number, along with other important personal information, you're giving criminals an opportunity to pounce. Sometimes criminals may gain access to your information via an online application, while others may use the tried-and-true method of simply eavesdropping as you tell a retail worker your personal information. You should be focused on protecting this information year-round, but busy stores can make it difficult to tell who's honest and who's not. Do yourself a favor and hold off on opening a new charge account to save 10% on the new outfits, tools, or toys for those special people in your life.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook, MasterCard, Twitter, and Visa. It also recommends Anthem and Home Depot. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.