Don’t Be an Identity Theft Victim this Holiday Season

Illinois shoppers are at high risk for identity theft, according to a recent survey by Experian’s ProtectMyID monitoring service.

The survey found that 50 percent of people in Illinois, and 54 percent in Chicago, have either had their identity stolen or know someone who’s been affected by the crime. During the hectic holiday shopping season, it’s particularly important to take steps to protect your identity.

“You may have a desire to get shopping done in a hurry and as inexpensively as you can, and that is what thieves are preying on,” says Eva Velasquez, CEO of Identity Theft Resource Center.

Safeguard your financial information this holiday season with these savvy tips:

Be smart with your smartphone.

Adam Levin, founder of Identity Theft 911, says to think of your smartphone not only as a communication device, but also as a data storage device. Many people have online shopping and financial apps on their phones, which means that thieves are only a few clicks away from accessing your accounts.

“You have to accord your phone the same respect as you would a computer, which means software is updated and it is password protected—and not with a silly password,” Levin says.

Avoid predictable passwords like birthdays or anniversaries. Instead, Levin recommends implementing a system that makes it easy for you to remember passwords, but difficult for anyone else to figure out. Choose a phrase as the base of all of your passwords, and then modify it slightly for each website by adding a few letters from that site’s name and a few numbers you can remember. For example, if your phrase is “See Spot run,” you might make your Amazon password “SSR57amzn” and your Chase password “SSR57chs.” Make passwords more secure by swapping symbols for some letters and using both uppercase and lowercase.

Smartphones and tablets make it easy to get shopping done from anywhere, but Levin cautions against making purchases when you’re connected to public Wi-Fi because thieves could steal credit card information. “People could be sitting at the next table at Starbucks hacking,” Levin says. “There are people who will create clone networks—so if it says ‘Starbucks network,’ they’ll add an /e/ and you look at it fast and connect.”

Levin also says it’s safer to download online retailers’ apps for shopping instead of typing the site into a web browser because apps tend to have better security.

Watch your back.

Stores are crowded during the holidays, making it easier for thieves to go unnoticed. Becky Frost, senior manager of consumer education at ProtectMyID, reminds shoppers to cover pin pads when entering digits so lurking thieves can’t snap a photo or video.

“A lot of thieves are pros at holding their devices so it looks like they are looking somewhere else,” Frost says.

Also use caution if you apply for store credit cards to get discounts on big-ticket purchases. Applications require sensitive information like social security numbers, so Frost says to fill them out in a quiet corner, instead of at the cash register. When you turn in applications, make sure clerks store them in a secure location.

Too good to be true?

There are plenty of deals to be had online, but be skeptical of promotions that seem too good to be true. Instead of clicking on links in emails from retailers, go directly to their websites and search for coupons, Frost says.

Velasquez says some thieves create fake retail sites to steal credit card information. “If you Google ‘Xbox’ and you find a website you have never heard of and they have it on sale for less than everybody else, you have to look closely at that,” she says.

Research companies by searching for customer reviews and checking with the Better Business Bureau before making purchases.

Click here for “6 Strategies for Black Friday Shopping.”