Protect Your Identity and Avoid Scams While Holiday Shopping in 2021

Protect Your Identity and Avoid Scams While Holiday Shopping in 2021 article image.

The holidays bring joy, time off from work and days spent with family, but they can also be accompanied by added stressors. Whether you're stretching your finances to afford presents, struggling with travel plans or rushing to get everything done before taking a few days off, the extra expenses and pressure could make you a prime target for identity theft or scams.

The Better Business Bureau's 2021 Online Purchase Scams Report found that online purchase scams were the riskiest type of scam this year. Victims of this type of scam lose money when products they buy are never sent, or they receive fake or low-quality items without the possibility of a refund from the retailer. A 2020 Experian survey also found that nearly a quarter of survey respondents (24%) were the victim of identity theft or fraud during the holidays.

While the dangers are real, there are also things you can do to protect yourself from falling victim to a scam or having your personal information compromised.

Put Basic Protections Into Place

Taking the time to rethink your account security before the holidays could help you minimize the possibility that your accounts will be compromised. Here are three basic steps you can take and tools that can help:

  • Use a unique password for all your accounts. If that seems like too much effort, at least create unique and hard-to-guess passwords for your financial accounts. A password manager—even a free one—makes this easy to set up.
  • Turn on multifactor authentication. Wherever possible (and again, with priority to financial accounts), turn on multifactor authentication (MFA). This security feature requires you to take an extra step to verify your identity before you can log in, and it could help keep your information safe if your account's password is compromised.
  • Monitor your credit. Experian's free credit monitoring comes with real-time alerts. While monitoring your credit won't prevent identity theft, you could be alerted if someone tries to open a credit account in your name so you can inform the account issuer before too much damage is done.

These precautions are important for protecting and detecting identity theft, but you still need to be cautious—especially when it comes to avoiding scams.


Be Careful Shopping Online, Especially With Online Marketplaces

Sharing your personal information with a new website or person always presents a risk. There are a few ways you can help protect your identity and avoid scams when shopping online.

For this holiday season in particular, high demand and limited availability due to supply chain disruptions could lead more people than ever to turn to online secondary marketplaces. The increased demand could also drive prices up, making popular products, like gaming consoles, a prime target for fraudsters.

Be extra careful when purchasing in-demand products from places like Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, NextDoor and other marketplaces. If you're buying directly from a person and paying in cash, you won't have the same purchase protections you'd get when buying from a retailer or when using a credit card.

If you're asked to pay using gift cards, cryptocurrency or a wire transfer, that's a red flag that the entire transaction could be a scam. Instead, it may be better to pay with a peer-to-peer payment app that has purchase protections, such as PayPal or Venmo. If something about the transaction doesn't feel right to you, the safest approach is simply to walk away.

Don't Be Tempted by Deals That Look Too Good to Be True

Deeply discounted items and limited-time sales can seem like a great opportunity to save money, especially when it's an in-demand or luxury product. However, these appealing offers may simply be ways to attract people to a scam.

Fraudsters sometimes create fake look-alike websites and promote them on social media. If you click through, you may see what looks like an authentic sales page with real product images—but surprisingly low prices. There could even be a believable explanation, such as a holiday sale.

The seller may be selling counterfeit items, reselling stolen goods or using stolen account information to purchase and resell items. But you may also find that you get an order confirmation and then never receive anything at all. The website was a fake—created to steal your money and information.

Ignore Get-Rich-From-Home Job Ads

You may see ads about ways to "make $1,500 a week working from home." Seems fairly easy, and the extra money could certainly help during the holidays. Except, you may be inadvertently participating in a criminal enterprise.

You could be asked to act as a money mule or reshipping mule by moving money from one account to another or accepting an item that's shipped to you and then reshipping it somewhere else. In either case, you may be caught in the middle of a fraud scheme. Even if you aren't knowingly committing a crime, you could wind up facing criminal charges.

Avoid Using Public Wi-Fi

It can be tempting to cross a few items off your list while you're out and about, but public Wi-Fi networks might not be secure. A VPN might keep some of your information secure, but it's still best to avoid logging in to your accounts or making a purchase when you're using a public network.

Check for Skimming Devices

If you're shopping in stores, check for card-skimming devices that may be attached to an ATM or card reader. These devices may allow your transaction to go through like normal, but copy your card's information so it can be used or sold later. (Even cards with an EMV chip can be "shimmed.") Paying with cash or using a contactless payment option, such as a tap-to-pay card or digital wallet on your phone, are more secure options.

Verify Request for Donations

Scammers may take advantage of people's generous nature during the holidays. They'll often send emails or make phone calls posing as representatives for charitable causes and use spoofing technology to make it look like the email or call is coming from a real charity. Instead of being used to help people, however, the money will go straight to the fraudster's pocket.

Don't let scammers ruin your giving spirit, but check out an organization's website to find a legitimate phone number or online donation option when you're ready to make a donation. If you're unsure about a charitable organization, you can also look it up on sites like Charity Navigator and CharityWatch.

Sign Up for an Identity Protection Service

If you're worried about someone using your personal information without your consent, an identity protection service like Experian IdentityWorksSM could offer a helping hand. There are several plans to choose from, and each includes U.S.-based fraud resolution specialists, dark web surveillance and identity theft insurance.

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