Whether your shopping preferences run more toward Black Friday or Cyber Monday, one thing is for sure: the holidays are open season for identity thieves. While monitoring individual credit is important year-round, it’s especially critical during the year end-shopping blitz.
You can protect yourself from identity theft by being vigilant when shopping in person or online. But customer behavior and preventive measures won’t protect against unscrupulous employees at retail establishments or companies that process personal and credit information. Here are some tips to make sure this remains a happy holiday season for your credit.
Monitor your credit. It’s important to review monthly credit card and banking statements, and routinely review credit reports for suspicious activity. The Fair Credit Reporting Act allows you to access your credit report free of charge from each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies each year. While many websites purport to offer an “official” free credit reports, only one is the real deal: Annualcreditreport.com, authorized by the Federal Trade Commission. Note that the three credit reports don’t have to be ordered simultaneously, and ordering one every four months will provide a smaller window for detecting and stopping potential theft.
Social security number? Yes. Credit card? No. Just as identity thieves are adept at scamming personal information, so too are some credit monitoring companies. Many of these outfits offer a free credit report as a hook for a costly monthly credit monitoring service. While paying for a monthly credit monitoring service can be a useful strategy for at-risk individuals or anyone concerned about possible identity theft, handing over personal information and agreeing to a monthly or yearly contract with a dubious provider or without full knowledge is never a good idea. You’ll always have to disclose your social security number when ordering a credit report, but if you’re providing credit card information, you’re most likely signing up for a monitoring service.
Freeze tag. As an extra security measure, consider putting a security freeze on your credit reports. Freezing credit won’t impact credit scores or the regular use of credit cards or bank accounts. It will, however, block new credit inquiries — both fraudulent and legitimate — until you release the freeze. There is usually a modest fee involved for freezing and unfreezing your credit (~$15, depending on the state you live in), and most states permit victims of identity theft and senior citizens to freeze their reports for free. Keep in mind that if you do put a freeze on your credit, you’ll need to plan in advance for any purchases that require a credit check, such as buying a new car or applying for a mortgage.