The spending season is in full swing, but shoppers both online and in the malls shouldn't let their guards down while hunting for gifts. A slight slipup and they may give away more than they bargain for, identity theft experts say.
No one knows exactly how many people have their personal information stolen each year, but government statistics suggest that number may hit 8-million or more. Whether through physical theft of forms of identification, through electronic means online, or at stores where cards are swiped for purchases, thieves have myriad ways to obtain your personal information.
Take that woman behind you at the mall ATM. She may be standing close to let the crowds pass by, but she also may be trying to sneak a peek at your personal identification number. And the e-mail you receive asking you to "verify" your credit card information is probably not from the site where you just purchased your nephew's present, but from a scammer who tapped into the retailer's site.
"ID theft is obviously a threat any time of year, but particularly during the holidays, thieves and crooks come out from under their rocks to take advantage of unsuspecting consumers," said Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which offers tips for consumers at www.protectyouridnow.org.
Steven Domeniko, chief executive of IdentityTruth, an identity protection service based in Westborough, Mass., said the recession is likely to contribute to a rise in ID theft.
One thing that concerns Domeniko is that much of the focus on ID theft centers on credit card use, but illegal ATM transactions are a large and growing problem. He advised against using freestanding kiosk ATMs and instead using bank ATMs equipped with security cameras.
Times are tough, but be careful when seeking out a great deal on an unfamiliar Web site. While shopping online is generally safe, Anne Wallace of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit funded by the financial services industry, said it makes sense to be wary. "Before you make a major purchase, the first step is to find out if they have contact information. Is there a street address, is there a phone number? Can you reach somebody?" Shoppers can also check out companies through consumer advocates like the Better Business Bureau, which posts reports on its Web site, www.bbb.org.