December is a month that brings out hordes of shoppers searching for holiday treasures. It also provides a scenario in which those who prey on those shoppers can more easily operate.
And while many unscrupulous thieves content themselves with the packages, boxes and bags they can lift from an unlocked car, others are looking to steal your very identity.
For that reason, December has been declared Identity Theft Prevention and Awareness Month, an observance that coincides with the time of year when most identity crime occurs.
“It is the season when credit card fraud picks up,” said Barbara Williams, a Fort Smith Police Department detective with the financial crime division.
A nine-year veteran with the police department, Williams brings to her position nearly three decades of experience in banking, retiring as a vice president and regional bank manager before entering law enforcement.
“People are in great need,” she said, prompting some of the less than honest among them to take a credit card or debit card left unattended, or to “skim” credit card information from a card, sometimes with a small electronic device, when a transaction is made at a restaurant or retail business.
“People get in a hurry,” said Williams. “They don’t pick up their card, leaving it on the counter for the next dishonest person to put in their pocket.”
Williams said the best defense against theft at the checkout line is to “pay attention to what you are doing.” She acknowledges distractions occur — and will occur more frequently during the bustle of holiday shopping. But it is precisely during those periods when a thief can strike.
Once a purchase has been made, vigilance should still be observed. Among security tips offered by the Consumer Federation of America is making sure credit card receipts are tucked away safely in a purse or wallet rather than carried in a shopping bag.
Shoppers returning to their vehicles laden with packages should also be aware of their surroundings and what is occurring around them. Packages and belongings should be secured.
“Don’t walk around with your wallet in your hand,” Williams said. She also noted there have been occasions of shoppers stopping to respond to a panhandler’s request for a handout, only to have an available purse or wallet snatched from them.
Williams said a person who has lost or had a credit or debit card stolen should contact the bank or credit card company and local police as soon as possible. The sooner a card company knows of a theft, the quicker it can suspend activity on the card.
Prompt reporting is also a factor in responsibility for unwarranted charges on a stolen or misused card. Williams said credit card companies generally will cover losses from transactions occurring within 60 days of reporting the theft. She also noted transactions on credit cards are advantageous to debit cards in a case of theft. Banks have a shorter period during which a customer’s losses are covered, she said, and while credit cards have a limit, debit cards enable a thief access to the full contents of their bank account.
The Federal Trade Commission says customer losses for debit card transactions are limited to the first $50 for theft reported within two days. Between two and 50 days, the amount can increase to $500.
Additional protection against identity theft is monitoring financial information. Mailed statements should be checked for suspicious purchases or charges. Customers who receive statements for credit cards they did not order, or who receive cards they did not request, should notify the issuer immediately.
As additional security, financial records with personal information should be shredded when they are thrown out.
Those who use mobile or online banking services can monitor their purchases and should do so regularly.
Consumers who want a more comprehensive look at their spending and credit history can apply for free credit reports from any of the three companies that monitor U.S. credit transactions, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The reports can be downloaded from www.annualcreditreport.com.
Other potential warnings that identity theft has occurred can include calls from bill collectors or even rejected loan or employment applications, citing credit risks.
Internet purchases can also be a portal for identity theft. Panda Security reports that while many online vendors are careful to provide and install security for online transactions, cyber criminals are looking for the weakest link in the security chain. Often, that link is the individual customer.
Panda offers several tips to online shoppers:
–Check and regularly scan home computers for active viruses before they begin shopping.
–Ignore spam as well as “phishing” attempts to get a user to provide log-on information, an email often claiming some sort of technical problem has occurred with an account they maintain.
–Fake greeting cards containing the name of a friend whose name has been lifted from the victim’s mailing list can sometimes be used to gain access to a computer. Panda advises against opening them or any unsolicited or suspicious emails.
Those who have been victims of identity fraud are familiar with the trouble that can result.
Information provided by Arvest Bank reported the average time per victim spent resolving fraud was 12 hours, and the out-of-pocket cost suffered per victim in 2011 was $354.
Javelin Strategy and Research reported more than 11.6 million Americans were victims of identity fraud in 2011, an increase of 13 percent over 2010.2
The FTC reported identity fraud accounted for 15 percent of the more than 1.8 million complaints filed in 2011. The FTC also provides on its website, ftc.gov, information on identity theft, identity fraud, with advice on how victims can respond to incidents and re-establish their good names and credit. The agency can also be reached at (877) 438-4338. ___
(c)2012 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.)
Visit Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.) at www.swtimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services