'Tis the Season to Be Cautious - Guidewell Financial Solutions Provides Holiday Safeguards

National nonprofit Guidewell Financial Solutions and Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland offer tips on how to avoid falling victim to holiday identity theft and scams.

​​During the holidays, consumers rush about shopping for gifts, going to parties, and preparing to travel. Identity thieves and scammers likewise lurk, waiting to strike, and we see an upsurge in criminal activity this time of year.  What fuels this spike?  Guidewell Financial Solutions’ Community Outreach Coordinator Dan Florea, says “ID thieves have more opportunity because more transactions are made.”  Community Outreach Coordinator Kylie Delgado believes people are too busy and distracted.  She says, “We’re also more likely to let down our guard because we want to see the best in everyone.” With caution and awareness, it is possible to keep the holiday bright and crime free. 

Out and About

Crowded malls provide identity thieves the perfect place to ply their trade. To avoid falling victim, Delgado recommends shoppers limit the amount of identification they carry into the store.  She says “The less you take, the less there is to lose or have stolen.  Also wear clothing with zippered or sealable pockets where you can stow these items. That way, you don’t have to keep track of your purse.”

Florea says “At the store, gas station, or ATM, don’t let your credit or debit card out of your hand or sight. Shield it during transactions and put it away just as soon as possible.” 

Delgado adds “While you’re shopping, pay attention to your surroundings. Studies show you’re less likely to be targeted for identity theft or other crimes if you appear alert.”

Good News

This year, many consumers have a new form of identity fraud protection: EMV or chip credit and debit cards.  For years this technology has been used in other countries.  This past October, U.S. card providers began making it a reality here.

How are these new chip cards safer?  Jody Thomas, Vice President of Communications and Marketing for Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland, says “Traditional credit and debit cards rely on a magnetic strip that provides the same personal information about you for each transaction. Chip cards are more secure, because they generate a unique, one-time code each time they’re used. This code isn’t of much use to identity thieves, because it no longer applies once that specific transaction is complete.”

Not all stores have installed chip card reading technology and some consumers have not received chip cards yet from their providers. However, Thomas says holiday shoppers faced with these situations needn’t worry, because they can make the same purchases and will have the same consumer protections they’ve always had.  

She notes, “When making holiday purchases, people do need to recognize the difference between using a credit and debit card.  If fraud occurs during a credit transaction, you are only legally liable for up to $50 of the purchase, and many creditors may even waive this amount. Debit cards take money directly out of your bank account and may not offer the same level of fraud protection.”  Thomas also cautions that chip cards do not offer any more protection than traditional cards when shoppers make purchases online on by phone.  

Electronic and Online Safety

Our increasing reliance on technology offers thieves and scammers fresh opportunities each holiday.  What’s new this year?  Fraudulent credit card chip emails. Thomas says, 

“If you receive a message stating you must provide personal information to receive a new chip card from your bank or credit card company, don’t comply. This is someone ​phishing. The information you supply may be used to compromise your identity. Financial institutions never use email to make this type of a request.”  Thomas recommends consumers check the Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker to see what’s happening in their area or to report a scam.

Delgado says, “When it comes to online shopping, always make sure you’re familiar with the site you’re using. Is it reputable?  Have you done business there before? If a vendor asks for personal information, such as your Social Security number, think twice. Phony sites can be designed to look like ones you already use.”

Florea says, “Also double check to see if the site you’re using is secure. Does its web address start with ‘https’? That’s the easiest way to tell. Avoid using free outside WIFI to shop online or check your bank balance. These are public networks, so anyone has access to the information you key in.”

Parting Advice

During the holidays, what’s the most important protective measure consumers can take?  Florea, Delgado, and Thomas all agree:  Regularly check your bank balances and credit card statements.  Florea says, “Daily balance and statement checks provide an early warning.  If you see a charge you don’t recognize, immediately call your bank or credit card company to find out more.  If things still don’t add up, report and dispute charge. This is the best way to stop thieves and ensure a hassle-free New Year.”

Guidewell Financial Solutions (also known as Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and Delaware) is an accredited 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency that helps stabilize communities by creating hope and promoting economic self-sufficiency to individuals and families through financial education and counseling.   Maryland License #14-01 / Delaware License #07-01