A reader asks…
Can you tell me what I should do to be safe whilst shopping this holiday season?
Happy to! This advice applies year-round, not just during the holidays. Let me first say that you don’t need to stress over your holiday shopping, this time of year is stressful enough. As long as you stick to well-known and established merchants (either brick-and-mortar or online), your risk is reasonably low. Not to say that none of them will be hacked, I’m sure one or more will ‘fess up to a data loss sometime. We all can take it for granted that our personal identity and credit information has already been compromised.
So the right action to take is simple, and I outlined it previously here. Watch your credit card and banking activity like a hawk using your mailed statements or better yet, with online access to your accounts or a smartphone app that tells you immediately any time your credit card is used. Some banks and credit card companies can also send you text alerts anytime there’s activity on your account, and you should certainly set that up if available.
You might find very small but unexplained transactions on your statements or alerts, and be tempted to ignore them. Don’t! If someone has gained access to your credit or bank account, they may start with a small transaction and then quickly escalate into larger transactions. If you see any unexplained transaction, you should contact the appropriate financial institution immediately and report it. In the case of fraudulent credit card use, your quick action helps limit your liability and also helps the financial institution to keep fraudulent use down. The latter doesn’t really save you money directly, but helps the banks keep the cost of fraud down, which in the aggregate reduces everybody’s cost. How? Merchants pay banks for each credit card transaction, and those costs are passed onto you, the consumer, as higher pricing. The more fraud, the more cost.
Other things you can do to keep safe when shopping include:
- If using an ATM to get cash, look at the card slot carefully. If it looks altered in any way, go find another one. Thieves use minuscule credit card scanners that capture your card’s information as you use the ATM.
- Keep your purse or wallet close by – don’t leave it in a shopping cart, you might step away and it only takes a half-second for a physical theft to occur.
- Don’t leave shopping bags visible in your car, put them in the trunk or cover them with something (even an old blanket will do).
- When shopping online, look for the green padlock in the web browser‘s URL bar (by the website address) – which shows that the information you are sending the website is encrypted between your computer’s web browser and the merchant’s web server.
- If using your smartphone or computer in a public place, always keep it tucked away in your pocket or purse unless you’re actively using it. And when using it, shield the screen and your hands/fingers from prying eyes.
- If using a credit card terminal at a store that requires you to enter a PIN, cover your button-punching hand with your other hand so no one can see which numbers you are pressing.
- Avoid using cash for gift purchases, if possible use a credit card (and pay it off asap!) – you’ll enjoy a lot more purchase protection.
Again, don’t stress out over this too much, and enjoy the holiday season!