Keeping Your Finances Safe During The Holiday Season

holiday fraud-fighting tipsTis’ the season for celebrating with family and friends, decking the halls, and holiday giving. Unfortunately, tis’ also the season for fraud and scams.

Unfortunately, with so much shopping this time of year, the holidays are rife with financial dangers — many of which you won’t hear about on the morning news or read about in the paper.  So take some time, read our tips, and avoid becoming a victim of fraud this holiday season.

Keep an eye on your surroundings
Crowded malls and shopping centers are a savory opportunity for pickpockets.  You’re expecting to get bumped and won’t notice one more jostle in a day full of them.  If you do recognize you’ve been robbed, the thief can probably get away into the crowd, disappearing like a needle in a haystack.  Purses should be worn across the body, wallets kept in the front pocket or inside a closed jacket.  Consider leaving the house with the bare minimum, such as your driver’s license or ID, health insurance card and our debit card – which offers fraud protection and security features not available with cash.

RFID, RFID, RFID
Today’s pickpockets don’t need to take your wallet to cause you problems, because many modern debit and credit cards emit RFID signals with personally identifying information.  If any of your cards have a chip, then you need to account for them.  Don’t leave them at home, because they offer superior protection at the register. Check our RFID wallet guide for some tips [link].  In a pinch, you can wrap chipped cards in two layers of aluminum foil, which will offer you protection from high-tech pickpockets, but you may get some bewildered stares or questions from folks at the register.

Consider smartphone payment
Tokenization is the single safest way to spend money at any time of year.  A malicious reader stuck into a cash register’s card reader won’t get you, RFID skimmers won’t get you, and if you don’t bring your wallet, no one can steal it (although they can still nab your phone, so watch out).  One important distinction to remember, though, is that not all Samsung Pay transactions are tokenized, so you only have as much protection as a regular card.  The general rule is that any register that doesn’t support Apple Pay’s technology also doesn’t support the tokenized version of Samsung Pay.

Protect your mailbox
At some point, we all learned not to use those colorful envelopes that tell thieves which cards might have checks in them, but we never learned the next step: Don’t put checks in the mailbox at all.  It’s not hard for thieves to grab stuff out of the outgoing mail, whether it has the power company’s name on it or is shaped like a holiday card.  Drop all checks into a big blue mailbox, bring them into your post office branch, or hand them to your postal carrier in person.  By the way, this tip should be followed year-round, and you might want to consider setting up our online bill pay feature to minimize the number of checks you write, as well.

Understand the risks of every form of payment
Every form of payment has its dangers.  Cash is portable and untraceable, so it’s a target for thieves.  Cards without EMV chips are in danger from skimmers built into the card reader at registers (like what happened at Target).  EMV cards can be skimmed by people with specialized equipment who bump up next to you.  All cards, cash and mobile phones are in danger of being stolen.  Some experts are even saying that check fraud will be the most dangerous type of identity theft over the next five years.  Even if you attempt to return to agrarian-era bartering, an enterprising thief could run off with the cow you were going to trade for an Old Navy gift card.

Take a breath, recognize the dangers and take reasonable precautions.  Do you know what kind of fraud protection you have on each of your credit cards?  Any card about which you’re unsure needs to stay home until you find out.  Unsure about a small boutique’s cyber security? Bring cash.

Bring your own bag
Shopping bags are a great way for stores to advertise, but they also advertise to thieves.  “This overburdened, overtired, potentially unwary individual is carrying goods from all of these stores,” the bags say “some may even have receipts in them and might have been paid for with cash.” Don’t make it easier for thieves.  Instead, bring a tote bag that zips up if you have one, or your canvas grocery bags if you don’t.

Take a trip to the car
Carrying too much is asking for trouble.  It makes you less mobile, you’re less likely to feel someone remove an item from your bags, and even if no one hassles you, it’s a good way to end up with back pain.  If you’re enduring a marathon trip to the mall, take time every few stores to take your purchases out to the car.  Keep receipts in your wallet and take pictures of the bags you put in your trunk (where thieves can’t see), so even in the worst possible scenario, your car insurance can cover the loss of your shopping from a car thief.

Plus, you’ll have less to carry, you’ll get some exercise, and the cold air can help you clear your head to decide if you need to purchase anything else.  Not a bad way to keep from overspending!

Buy yourself a holiday coffee
You’re probably safer if you’re alert, but that’s just an excuse.  Holiday coffee drinks are delicious, you want one, and we just gave you an awesome excuse to justify the everyday luxury of a peppermint mocha to yourself.  You’re welcome.

January is coming… be ready
If you’re going to binge on holiday shopping in December, you’ll need to purge in January.  Keep all of your receipts and do an extra-careful reconciliation of your accounts in January.  Be ready to spend a few afternoons making phone calls to make sure every charge is correct and accounted for.  Make sure to check your credit report in January as well.  While you’re checking your credit and your accounts, take the opportunity to start the new year off right:  you have your financial info gathered already, you have your credit report in front of you and your W-2s are starting to show up, so be sure to stay on top of your finances as you celebrate this year.

And that’s it.  It sounds like a lot, but it’s really taking the same level of vigilance you would use for normal shopping and increasing it to correspond with the increased spending of the season.  For a good rule of thumb, maybe we should just establish the “3-Mariah” rule:  Once you hear Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” for the third time on any day, you have to go home – you’ve either spent too long at the mall, or your brain has been turned into holiday slurry and you can no longer be trusted to remain vigilant.  Three Mariahs and you’re out.

Photo by Benson Kua / CC BY-SA 2.0

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