Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Tips to protect your money from identity theft during the holidays

Christmas is the time for shopping, family and, unfortunately, scammers – clever thieves who specialize in exploiting others by stealing their personal banking information and walking away with new identities and someone else’s money.

“The holidays are so busy. You’re not thinking much. You’ve got a dozen presents, and you have kids with you. There’s just too much going on,” said Jason Alvarado, lead faculty for the digital forensics program at Richland College.

Thieves are setting traps with the use of skimmers or card readers at all places where consumers swipe their credit and debit cards. Most consumers assume they are safe at bank ATMS but they aren’t, Alvarado said.

“Sometimes thieves will hide a camera that looks like a security camera, so you think you’re secure – and you’re not,” he said. “If something looks out of place, it probably is. Go to another bank or retailer.”


How they skim your money

Cybercrimes have evolved right alongside digital technology, said Alvarado. Thieves are lifting critical information from consumers and using it to apply for credit or to cash fraudulent checks.

He explained, “They use skimmers. You’re giving away your information, and you don’t even know it.” The skimmers are hidden devices that are installed on ATM machines, on gas pumps and inside stores. “They use undetected cameras to copy bank information, including passwords. And the devices can be purchased anonymously,” he added.

Skimmers can glean enough information to make duplicate credit cards. Cyber crooks also use them to send false applications for loans or credit cards; make bank withdrawals; and purchase goods and services.

“All of the electronics are in there (the skimmer), and it holds on to your information. Your transaction goes through, but there’s an extra reader that picks up your card number and the pin,” Alvarado said. “So they’ve got you. It’s like a pin reader.”


How to stop the scam

Alvarado is sounding the alarm about bogus card readers and other devices that capture and encrypt information. “Identity thieves are going to be with us, unfortunately,” Alvarado said. “You just have to be aware and take steps to avoid being a victim.”

Identity theft is a crime, and scams are often difficult to detect. Alvarado warns that the holidays bring an increased chance of identity theft. Thieves are happy about the season because it increases the chances they can prowl successfully.

First, Alvarado recommends using chip-enabled cards because they add a greater level of security and are difficult to duplicate.  Next, he suggests using prepaid debit cards.

Also, people who suspect their information may have been compromised should immediately contact their banks. Finally, victims also should report crimes to the Federal Trade Commission, the agency charged with protecting consumers.

Annually, identity theft costs consumers more than $24 billion, according to Bureau of Justice statistics, including costs directly associated with identity theft such as bounced checks, plus fraudulent use of bank and credit accounts.  These crimes run the gammut from false loan and credit card applications to the purchase of goods and services under someone else’s name.


How to handle tax season, too

After the holidays comes tax season. Thieves already are plotting to steal identities and collect someone else’s tax refund, according to federal officials.

“We certainly understand if the latest IRS imposter scam makes you queasy,” said Seena Gressin, an attorney for the FTC’s Consumer and Business Education division. “That one involves a fake IRS tax notice that claims you owe money as a result of the Affordable Care Act. It’s one of the many imposters’ scams that have popped up. As tax season nears, we’ll see more.”

The agency has issued alerts warning consumers to be on the lookout for unauthorized withdrawals. They also warn about telephone calls about debts that consumers don’t actually owe.

More tips for consumers include:

  1. Shop retailers that use the chip reader.  When you put in your pin, it encrypts the credit card information, adding another layer of protection.
  2. If your information is stolen, immediately contact your bank or credit card provider. Check cards vigilantly for unfamiliar charges. Freeze cards if you detect fraudulent activity.
  3. Try to stick to one card and track your purchases.
  4. Shred documents that include social security and credit card numbers
  5. Check your WIFI connection to make sure it’s secure.
  6. Contact the Federal Trade Commission at for a free credit report. To file a complaint, call 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357).


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