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How to Protect Your Data During the Holiday Shopping Season

The “most wonderful time of the year” isn’t so wonderful for personal data security. The holiday shopping rush means most of us make more risky transactions then than at any other time of year. And online shopping fraud is likely to rise in the near future as the retail industry adapts to changes in credit card technology, according to NerdWallet research on credit card fraud.

Last year, fraudsters stole $16 billion from 12.7 million U.S. consumers, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. In fact, identity fraud hits a new victim every two seconds, researchers found. Data breaches have already compromised consumers’ personal financial information at major retailers Home Depot, Michaels, Neiman Marcus and Staples. Even the largest bank, JPMorgan Chase, was hit by hackers.

Institutions like Incommons Bank are advising customers to take special precautions when shopping online. This year, use these tips to protect your financial information.

1. Shop safer online

As shoppers do more of their holiday shopping online — online sales are expected to increase 6% to 8% to $105 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation — it’s important to take steps to make your financial information less vulnerable.

  • Secure your computer with anti-virus, anti-spyware and firewall programs.
  • Before you buy online, verify the seller’s reputation. Examine policies on security and privacy, and be certain the checkout process is secure. Typically online sites will offer a way to verify their security settings.
  • Make purchases over only secure Internet connections and never over a public Wi-Fi network, like you might find in a coffee shop.

2. Change PINs, passwords

Changing passwords every 90 days makes it tougher for hackers to access your accounts. To create stronger passwords, use numbers, symbols and uppercase and lowercase letters. Regularly changing your personal identification number (PIN) for your debit card is also a good idea.

3. Monitor your accounts

Track your account activity and balances frequently. In addition, since you can request one free credit report annually from each of the three credit reporting agencies — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian— consider getting a copy from a different agency every four months and checking for suspicious activity.

4. Take quick action if your data is compromised

If you suspect an illicit transaction has been made on your account, contact the bank or credit provider involved immediately. You’ll be protected in most cases as long as you alert the bank or card company promptly.

If you think you’ve been hacked, call the merchants where the fraud occurred and place a free fraud alert at one of the credit reporting agencies — it will advise the other two. This will block new credit applications from being processed until you remove it. 

Call the Federal Trade Commission at 877-438-4338 or file an identity theft fraud report online at Also submit a copy to your local police.

With tens of millions of accounts compromised each year, vigilance is a must to avoid becoming a victim. As you begin your holiday shopping, the most important thing to remember is to keep your private information private. After all, the holidays will be much jollier if you don’t have to deal with account fraud.

Jeanne Lee and Anna Helhoski, NerdWallet

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