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Hardy2
December 06, 2006

'Tis The Season . . . for Identity Theft


Most consumers wince when January rolls around and credit card bills with hard evidence of holiday shopping excess start to arrive.

For some shoppers, that wince turns to pure anguish when they discover that they weren't the only ones making charges in their names.

According to the global information service provider comScore Networks, the four-day shopping bacchanalia that begins Thanksgiving weekend with Black Friday and concludes with what's become known as Cyber Monday, saw $924 million in online retail sales last year. Cyber Monday accounted for a whopping $484 million of that total. This year comScore predicted the figures to surge to $1.15 billion, with $600 million spent on Cyber Monday.

How can consumers ensure that their contribution to the soaring stats are all legit? This week the folks at Suffolk County Police Department's identity theft and computer crimes units offered some tips for making sure you are the only one making purchases with your cards online.

Deputy Inspector Kevin Fallon with the county PD's Special Services Bureau oversees the identity theft unit. Acknowledging that ID theft is one of most rapidly rising crimes across the country, he reported that his team logged 1582 reports of identity theft during the first 10 months of 2006, before the holiday season even began.

He expects more complaints from holiday shoppers but said victims may not even know they've been targeted until they get a bill from a company they don't even have an account with. A new law that just went into effect has the potential to put the kibosh on at least one type of credit card fraud.

The Security Freeze Law allows consumers to put a freeze on their credit bureau information. That means no one else can use your personal information to open a credit account or apply for a loan since most companies won't approve a credit card without first reviewing your history. SCPD calls the freeze "a major weapon in the war against identity thieves."

The service is free the first time for state residents, and details, as well as the procedure for filing a freeze, are available on SCPD's website under the section entitled "Identity Theft Facts."

Of course, if you're in the process of trying to get a loan or new plastic yourself, a freeze is not for you. Fallon offered additional tips for online shopping safety this holiday season.

First and foremost, never give your personal information unless you're the one who initiated contact with a site. Shop with companies you're familiar with and make sure your browser complies with security standards such as Secure Socket Layer or Secure Electronic Transaction. Before you provide any information, check your browser for the security symbol. A lock symbol in the lower right corner of the browser page and "https" in the address box indicate a secure site.

When possible, use a credit card rather than a debit card. Under the Fair Billing Act, a credit card could offer more protection than a debit card in the event of an illegal purchase. Make sure your firewall and antivirus programs are updated regularly, to keep hackers and spammers at bay.

Not all online shopping mishaps involve identity theft. Buyers can be bamboozled by shady sellers, too. The Federal Trade Commission has teamed up with the technology industry to encourage shoppers to integrate safe practices into their online shopping. Check out their website or OnGuardOnline.gov.

Suggestions include making sure a seller is reputable by confirming his or her physical address and phone numbers. Be sure to check the terms of any deal, like refund policies and delivery guarantees, and don't forget to print out "hard copy" records of all purchases.

Lots of times, before an identity thief heads to the computer, the perp has gotten his hands on personal information the old-fashioned way — by stealing it in real time. When you hit the mall this season, Fallon says, make sure you only take what you need in terms of personal information and plastic. Your checkbook is a great source of information for those with forgery on their minds. Leave that home in a safe place.

Speaking of a safe place, Fallon reminded that it's a bad idea to leave any information in your car, even if it's locked. Never let your purse or wallet out of your sight.

And have a care about another sense — hearing. An identity thief may employ a strategy known as "shoulder surfing" and listen in when you apply for instant credit at a store. They can even use a cell phone to take a picture of your paperwork over your shoulder as you jot down information. Be aware of what's going on around you.

In general, the holiday season can be a hectic whirlwind that makes many of us let down our guard and forget to take safety precautions. In the merry maelstrom, we can become more careless about disposing of documents that contain personal information and provide ripe pickings for thieves who dumpster dive.

Even retailers are acknowledging the need to protect personal information this holiday season. Testament to that sensibility — One office supply company's most popular gift for sale this year? A home paper shredder.

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