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As Santa begins to load up his sleigh and people across the country prepare for Yuletide fun, you mustn't forget to protect yourself against thieves who are looking to have a very Merry Crime-mas. As many people find out too late, 'tis the season to be burgled, with one car theft being reported every 41 seconds in the United States. But what you might not realize is that criminal activity can easily extend beyond the real world into the digital world -- and since we're spending a lot more time online getting ready for this year's festivities, it's essential that you protect yourself against seasonal cybercrime.

Internet crime, which involves the use of the web to communicate false or fraudulent representations to customers, is all too common in 2020. In fact, the pandemic caused countless businesses to ramp up their technological barriers due to widespread concerns about internet safety and data protection. Those efforts haven't necessarily done much to address how rampant cybercrime has become, however, as the FBI reported that internet-related criminal activities increased by a staggering 400 percent this year. And considering how much U.S. consumers spent online during Black Friday (a record $9 billion on retail websites), your online activities may be making you more vulnerable than you realize. From stolen credit card information to gift-giving scams, here are a few tips to keep in mind in your quest to avoid becoming a victim.

Use A VPN To Browse And Buy

Although the U.S. Postal Service is beyond overwhelmed due to the increase in online shopping this year, many people have still waited until the last minute to purchase gifts. If you're finishing up your holiday shopping online, you should always do so using a password-protected internet connection. Using public WiFi is extremely risky and can make it easy for your information to be stolen. But keep in mind that your private connection may not actually be enough. Many experts recommend using what's called a VPN (or virtual private network). Basically, VPNs put up an extra barrier between you and what you're doing on the internet; this makes it harder for hackers to get what they're looking for. They're easy enough to set up and use, so consider using one whenever you make a purchase online.

Change Your Passwords Regularly

If recent data breaches have shown us anything, it's that a single incident can result in massive damages for a single person. If you're using the same password for a bunch of different sites, one breach could put your personal information at-risk across multiple platforms. Even if you act fast, you'll still have to go through and change your password on tens of hundreds of sites to avoid the worst-case scenario. Failing to change your passwords regularly is a no-no, as well, since this will also make it easier for someone to gain access to your accounts. Consider investing in a password locker (perhaps even as a Christmas present to yourself!), which will keep track of all your account passwords and come up with more difficult-to-hack options to keep everything secure.

Don't Save Your Personal Info

It may be tempting to save your financial information to make the checkout process speedier, but this also makes it easier for criminals to access your information. Even if it takes a little longer every time you buy something, consider wiping any saved payment information from these accounts. That way, data breaches and hacks will be less fruitful for cybercriminals. It may also be helpful to use a service like PayPal or to make sure that your payment methods provide adequate fraud protection -- just in case you forget to clear your info prior to a breach.

Think Before You Click

Your email inbox is probably chock-full of holiday deals. But you must remember that some emails should be opened at your own peril. From scammy links in phishing emails to unsecured websites, you need to do your due diligence before you click or tap. Make sure to verify email addresses prior to clicking on any shopping links and to ignore any suspicious texts or emails that refer to package delivery issues or too-good-to-be-true offers. View every electronic correspondence with a healthy dose of suspicion and always triple-check the sender before you engage in any way.

Steer Clear Of Gifting Scams

Gift-related scams happen all year round, but they're especially prevalent during the holiday season. Gift card scams may involve fraudulent messages that look like they come from friends or family members (either through email or through social media platforms) asking for help in the form of gift cards. Some fraudulent websites may also request payment for items with gift cards. The reason? They're almost impossible to track. Once the gift card numbers are handed over, there's a slim-to-none chance that you'll get your money back.

Speaking of social media, you should also stay away from so-called gift exchanges that run rampant on Facebook and other sites. "Secret Sister" and other similar exchanges ask you to provide some personal information and buy a gift for a recipient on the list in the hopes that you'll receive a present back from someone else. This scam operates just like any other pyramid scheme, as it's actually about recruiting other people to participate. These scams are actually illegal, so you'll want to scroll past (or even report) these posts when you see them.

If you do become the victim of an internet crime, it's important to remember that you aren't alone. As such, it's a good idea to report this crime to the FTC or another government authority to protect others from falling prey to the same schemes. While there are more than 800,000 sworn law enforcement officers now serving in the U.S., you may want to take the step of reporting the incident to the appropriate fraud agency before contacting law enforcement (particularly because your local police department may not be able to provide assistance due to jurisdictional limitations). You may also need to take the steps of reporting potential fraud to your bank or credit card company, change your passwords, and sign up for credit score reporting or even a freeze on your credit score. The agency to which you report the incident will be able to provide you with the exact next steps to take in regard to your specific situation.

While these tips won't stop all instances of cybercrime, they can raise awareness for many people who might otherwise be at-risk. During this holiday season, when we already have so much else to worry about, these tips can keep your information safe and ensure you protect what you have.

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