Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America with over ten million Americans victimized in 2004 alone. According to an IBM survey of 1,000 American consumers, one out of every seven Americans (14 percent) has had their personal and/or credit card information stolen, with one in ten victims experiencing a theft during a holiday season.

Using shopping malls, the internet and mailboxes, identity thieves can strike and gather your personal data without you ever knowing. Experts predict that on line shopping will increase 25 percent this holiday season over last year so it is likely that online identity theft will increase as well.

Below are some suggestions to help you avoid becoming a victim of identity theft in each of the three instances cited above:

When Shopping

  • Be aware of people standing nearby using cell phones, especially those with camera cell phones, as someone can easily take a clear picture of the information on your credit card.
  • Make sure that you don’t leave a store without your credit card receipt and credit card.
  • Remember, you will likely be in a crowd; this is an ideal setup for a pickpocket. Streamline the contents of your wallet.
    • Remove anything with your SSN on it.
    • If you have a lot of credit cards and store cards, don’t carry them all at once – just take the ones you know you will be using.
    • Take pictures of credit cards and write down phone numbers of credit card companies and keep the information in a safe place – not your wallet or purse. This will be useful in the event you need to report cards lost or stolen.
    • Don’t carry your checkbook. If you must pay by check, don’t carry more checks than you will need.
    • Don’t write down your ATM password or store it in your wallet.
  • Be advised that with debit card fraud, your liability can jump if you’re not vigilant. The law says that the amount of your liability depends on how quickly you report the fraud. In contrast, with credit card fraud, liability is generally capped at $50.
  • Come January, you may not want to see your credit card statements. But you should immediately open them and check for unfamiliar purchases. Keep all the receipts from your holiday shopping in one place so you can cross-check them with your billing statement. This is important because without the receipts, you could easily overlook something you didn’t buy.

Guidelines for Online Shopping

  • Make sure you are dealing with a legitimate company. If you are not dealing with a merchant that you know, research it with the Better Business Bureau or another consumer protection agency.
  • Ask the internet merchant about its return and exchange policies, related fees, if any, and its policy for resolving disputes. Make sure that there is a working telephone number and e-mail address for the merchant’s customer service department.
  • Before shopping online, make sure the site is secure. According to the Better Business Bureau, sites that have technology to secure transactions will have “https” instead of “http” in the Web address of the page that asks for credit card information. Another way to tell whether the site is secure is to look for an icon of a locked padlock, which usually can be found at the bottom of the screen.
  • Look for information on the Web site about the merchant’s privacy and security policies. It should clearly disclose how the merchant will protect your financial information and whether it will share your personal information with other companies.
  • Pay for your merchandise with a credit card, not a money order or check. With a credit card, you have more protection if there are problems with product quality or customer service.
  • Consider using a service that masks your account number.
    • For example, American Express offers Private Payments, a service that generates a unique, random number used in place of an account number. It expires after each transaction, so it cannot be reused if stolen. (However, Private Payments is not designed for certain types of transactions, such as advance travel arrangements and recurring payments.)
  • Don’t be a victim of “phishing,” which is when crooks send e-mails that look as though they come from legitimate companies requesting information from you. According to the Anti-Phishing Working Group, phishing e-mails persuade up to five percent of recipients to respond to them. When they do, consumers typically provide information such as credit card, bank and Social Security numbers or user names and passwords – resulting in identity theft. Be suspicious of unsolicited e-mail that is sent to you.

Guidelines for Preventing Identity Theft through the Mail and the Trash

  • Pay close attention to your mail. If you don’t receive your monthly credit card statement, it isn’t a gift from Santa. Identity thieves love to raid mailboxes for your personal information. They can even change your billing address so that you won’t catch on so fast.
  • Don’t forget to stop your mail if you are going out of town for the holidays.
  • Buy a shredder and make sure you use it. Shred anything with identifying information before putting it in the trash. Things to shred include store receipts with your full credit card number once you have checked them against your statement, offers for new credit cards, mortgages, refinancing, bank receipts and statements; shred anything with identifying information.

If You Are a Victim of Identity Theft

A fraud alert is supposed to result in creditors contacting you before opening new accounts or making changes to your existing accounts. The Federal Trade Commission has a link on its Web site with steps to take if you’re a victim of identity theft. Go to and click on the link for consumers.

More information

How to contact credit-reporting agencies:
To report fraud
Equifax 800-525-6285
Experian 888-397-3742
Trans Union 800-680-7289

To order your credit report
Equifax 800-685-1111
Experian 888-397-3742
Trans Union 800-888-4213

Helpful Web sites
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Federal Trade Commission. Click on Consumer Protection, then Identity Theft.
Department of Justice
Make sure to take precautions that will make this a bright season for you and your family.

[Steve Clark]