Randy Forbes: Is your identity safe this holiday season?
When busy shopping malls were the primary way to shop during the holiday season, lines wrapped around the stores and the biggest security concern was to make sure you didn’t leave your purse or wallet unattended while you reached into your cart or put bags in your car. Now times have changed. This year, 86% of Americans said they will shop online via computer during the holiday season, and 41% will shop online via a mobile device.
Today, security breaches can happen without us even knowing. And by the time we realize a breach took place, it’s often too late – money has been taken from bank accounts and identity has been compromised, leading to a painstaking process of identity theft recovery.
A recent survey by Experian, one of three major credit bureaus, showed that consumers are on high alert regarding protecting their personal information. And they should be. Highly publicized security breaches from some big retailers have consumers on edge. Approximately 16 million people fell victim to identity theft in 2012, totaling more than $24 billion dollars in damages, according to statistics by the U.S. Department of Justice.
These attacks are criminal acts and Americans need safeguards to help prevent identity theft. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, I work closely with my colleagues to ensure Americans are protected and that perpetrators of identity theft are brought to justice. This year, the House passed – with my support – the STOP Identity Theft Act, H.R. 744, to help protect taxpayers’ information from fraud. We have significant work to do moving forward. Current federal law offers some protection for victims of fraud resulting from identity or financial theft, but it is in your best interest to be proactive.
Holidays are a time of giving, but unfortunately fraudsters treat the holiday season as a time for taking. Identity and financial thieves are in greater pursuit of victims during the holidays. Here are four practical steps to take to better protect yourself:
First, look for an https:// in the URL. This communication protocol denotes added security capabilities to prevent middle-man attacks. Next, when you are making a purchase, look for a secure lock symbol on the toolbar, which shows you that the website is encrypting your information as you submit. Most major retailers take these added security measures to keep your information safe.
Monitor your bank and credit card accounts. During the holiday season, check your accounts more often or consider enrolling in a credit monitoring service. Many banks and credit unions offer fraud alert programs that alert you when unusual activity is detected in your account. You can order a free annual credit report at: www.annualcreditreport.com.
Be vigilant when using public wifi. It is easier for identity thieves to steal information over public networks where the barrier for entry for online hackers is low. One article released last year tells the story of a hacker in a European café who, in less than 20 minutes, learned birth dates, career information, and credit card numbers for customers in the café. This level of security breach is rare, but it speaks to the amount of information available via unsecure networks and how important it is to keep information safe. First, don’t assume that public wifi is secure, even if the network requires a password to use. Then, if possible, conduct online transactions when you are on a secure network (like at home or a family member’s house), or opt to use a credit card (rather than a debit card) when using public wifi. Read more tips for using public wifi networks from onguardonline.gov.
Password protect your mobile device. This is especially true if you use mobile banking, bill pay, or other online shopping applications with sensitive and personally identifiable information.
If you think you’ve been a victim of identity theft, use this site from the Federal Trade Commission to find information on steps to take and sample form letters to use for victims of identity theft. I’ve also included on my website identity theft resources to provide tips for minimizing your risk and tools to resolve disputes related to identity theft.
Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s Fourth District in Congress.