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3 Ways To Protect Yourself From Holiday Identity Theft

By Caroline Banton, GOBankingRates.com (TNS)

The holidays are a great time for buying gifts — and also a prime time for thieves. But having your purse or wallet stolen in a busy mall might be the least of your worries this year when it comes to holiday shopping and identity theft.

Here are the best ways to protect yourself from different types of identity theft this holiday season.

STICK WITH FAMILIAR RETAILERS AND BRANDS

Popular holiday products are often similarly priced among reputable companies. Big brands monitor their competitors so that their prices are not undercut. Some immoral companies might advertise a product at an amazingly low price to attract your attention, but any deal that looks too good to be true probably is.

Robert Siciliano, an identity theft prevention expert with BestIDTheftCompanys.com, said to avoid any seller who appears to offer a vastly different product or price. He advised choosing brand names that you know rather than choosing the cheapest provider. “Stick with familiar retailers,” he said. “Unbelievably low prices are a red flag because competitors are always checking each other’s prices.”

BEWARE OF CUSTOMER REVIEWS

Online shopping and Google searches increase exponentially during the holiday season. In 2014, Google’s marketing insight service Think With Google reported that more than 92 percent of holiday shoppers intended to research gifts or make purchases online. But you shouldn’t always believe what you read online.

Online customer reviews can be written by anyone and might not be genuine.

“An unscrupulous seller may hire people to write favorable reviews,” Siciliano says. “Although one clue is that the same reviewer has reviewed tons of products, other reviews are crafted more cleverly. Identical reviews on different sites are suspicious.”

Rather than trust online reviews, ask your friends for recommendations on products. You can use your own social network to find more trustworthy information.

WATCH OUT FOR PHISHING

Scammers will be more active this holiday season, and email traffic confirming online orders and deliveries will exponentially increase. Never give out personal information online unless you initiated contact. For example, ordering online from a reputable store is typically safe, but if you receive an email asking you to go to another site to input personal information, you’re probably being scammed.

“The crook sends you the bait: an email that looks like it’s from a reputable company with a malicious link to a site that looks like the company’s requesting you turn over your username, password or credit card number,” said Siciliano. “Do this and the thieves will spend your money.”

Avoid scams by watching for emails that appear to be from a shipper or retailer. Check the email address and domain name of any sites and make sure they match that of the shipper or retailer exactly. Remember that no established company will require an email or password to be divulged by email or over the phone. Finally, don’t donate to charities until you have checked their legitimacy on sites like CharityNavigator.

Caroline Banton writes for GOBankingRates.com (), a leading portal for personal finance news and features, offering visitors the latest information on everything from interest rates to strategies on saving money, managing a budget and getting out of debt.

© 2015 GOBankingRates.com, a ConsumerTrack web property. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: B Rosen via Flickr

 

Why You Should Consider Freezing Your Credit Reports Even Before Your Information Is Stolen

By Patricia Sabatini, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

PITTSBURGH — So far this year, more than 100 data breaches have resulted in an estimated 153 million financial records being stolen — hitting big names such as Experian, T-Mobile, Anthem and U.S. government personnel records — with most of the victims being offered free credit monitoring services as a check against ID theft.

But a new report by the Washington-based consumer group U.S. PIRG says credit monitoring isn’t nearly enough. The group is urging all consumers to consider freezing their credit reports as the only way to stop ID thieves from taking out loans, credit cards and other credit accounts in victims’ names.

“Whether your personal information has been stolen or not, your best protection against someone opening new credit accounts in your name is the security freeze,” said Mike Litt, consumer program advocate at U.S. PIRG. “Credit monitoring services may tell you (about a fraudulent account) but only after you’ve been victimized.”

When a freeze is in place, credit bureaus are prevented from releasing a file to potential creditors without the consumer’s permission. Because most businesses won’t open credit accounts without checking a consumer’s credit history, ID thieves are locked out.

There are drawbacks to consider, including fees, which vary by state; some limitations; and the potential for delays when consumers legitimately want to apply for credit. People must lift freezes if they want to apply for mortgages, car loans, credit cards or other type of credit.

A thaw can be activated online or by phone using a personal identification number and choosing the number of days that the thaw applies. It can be a general thaw or apply only to a specific creditor.

There is no fee to permanently lift a freeze, which automatically expires in seven years.

Victims of ID theft who provide a police report can freeze and thaw their files at no charge, while people 65 and older can initiate a freeze or free but must pay $10 for a thaw.

For the broadest protection, experts recommend that consumers freeze their credit reports with all three main credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — because a freeze request with one doesn’t extend to the others. Experian said it froze 433,558 files through October this year, up from 160,639 in all of 2014.

A consumer applying for credit who wants to temporarily lift a freeze should find out which credit bureau the lender is using to assess creditworthiness and request a thaw from that particular bureau.

In most cases, a report can be thawed within 15 minutes. But since the law allows credit bureaus up to three days to lift a freeze, shoppers could be blocked from getting instant store credit — the kind that promises a discount of 10 percent or more for signing up for a credit card at the register.

Freezes also could interfere with other products and services that may require a credit check, such as getting insurance, renting an apartment, hooking up to a utility or opening a cell phone account.

The U.S. PIRG report noted that neither credit monitoring nor a security freeze can detect or prevent unauthorized use of existing credit accounts or other types of fraud or identity theft such as theft of tax refunds or medical services. Many banks and credit card companies have mechanisms in place to detect existing account fraud and remove unauthorized purchases.

The report contended that paid credit monitoring services, which typically cost from around $10 to $20 a month, are not worth the expense because consumers can essentially monitor their own reports free. Federal law requires each of the main credit bureaus to provide consumers with a free credit report once a year.

Litt acknowledged that a credit monitoring service might detect theft faster than consumers could on their own, depending on when consumers happen to check their reports.

For victims of data breaches, an alternative to a credit freeze is to place fraud alerts on credit reports. The alerts are free but must be renewed every 90 days. Victims of identity theft can sign up for extended fraud alerts that last seven years.

A fraud alert lets creditors know that they should take special precautions before extending credit. An alert with one of the three main credit bureaus is automatically extended to the other two.

Alerts are weaker than a freeze because creditors aren’t legally bound to abide by an alert.

For more information, visit www.identitytheft.gov. To download the U.S. PIRG report, visit uspirg.org. To order copies of your free credit reports, visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com

The details

What it does: Blocks credit bureaus from releasing information from your credit report to lenders and other businesses without your permission. That effectively stops identity thieves from opening a credit card, cell phone account or other accounts in your name.

What it costs: For Pennsylvania residents, it costs $10 to initiate a freeze and $10 to temporarily lift (thaw) one. There’s no charge to permanently remove a freeze. ID theft victims who submit a police report, and people 65 and older do not have to pay to initiate a freeze. ID theft victims also can request a thaw at no charge.

Where to start: For information on credit freezes, visit each of the three main national credit bureaus’ websites, or call them toll free:

www.freeze.equifax.com
www.experian.com
www.transunion.com

1-888-909-8872.

Where to turn

Victims of identity theft can visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website, www.identitytheft.gov

People should stagger their requests with each bureau every four months or so to keep tabs on their credit reports throughout the year, U.S. PIRG said.

©2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A new report by consumer grou pU.S. PIRG is urging onsumers to consider freezing their credit reports as the only way to stop ID thieves from taking out loans, credit cards and other accounts. (Fotolia/TNS)

Getting Started: Preventing ID Theft On Vacation

By Carolyn Bigda, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Summer travel is full of sun and fun, but a stolen passport or hacked email account can quickly dampen the experience. Having personal information compromised while on the road is relatively common.

A recent study by ProtectMyID, the identity theft protection unit of credit bureau Experian, found that 20 percent of consumers have had a driver’s license, passport, credit card or other document with personal info lost or stolen while traveling. Nearly 40 percent have had their identity stolen or been victimized in some way, or know of someone who did.

Here’s what you can do to make sure thieves don’t ruin your vacation:

––Pack sparingly. You may spend a lot of time strategizing how to keep your bag light, but experts say just as much care should be taken with your wallet. According to the survey, 47 percent of travelers do not remove unnecessary credit cards from their wallet before leaving for a trip. A quarter of people travel with their Social Security cards.

The advice: Bring only the essentials, including a limited number of debit and credit cards. Leave your Social Security card at home. That way, if your wallet is lost or stolen not all of your personal information will be compromised.

––Use free Wi-Fi carefully. If you’re like me, you probably look for free Wi-Fi wherever you travel. But be careful when using it, experts say.

“Much of your information will be visible to anyone with the right tools as it moves across the wireless network,” said Dave Dean, a world traveler and co-founder of Too Many Adapters, a technology resource for travelers.

The advice: Connect to the Web through a virtual private network. A VPN encrypts all of the information that passes between you and a wireless network, wherever that network is in the world. VPN software from Witopia goes for as little as $5.99 per month.

––Avoid public computers. The public computer in a hotel or hostel may be a nice convenience if you’re traveling without your laptop, but by using one you’re putting yourself at major risk.

“You just don’t know what is installed on that computer,” Dean said. Risks include key-logging software that saves your login details, security updates that are not installed, and no or out-of-date antivirus software.

He added: “These are not hypothetical risks. I’ve seen them myself in Internet cafes and hostels around the world.”

The advice: If you have no other option but to use a public computer, do so only for the most innocent of reasons, such as researching restaurant options. Do not connect to your online bank account or enter any personal financial information. If you check your email, make sure to reset the password — from a secure device — soon after.

––Make copies of important documents. No matter how careful you are when traveling, sometimes personal items go missing.
“Identity theft is a crime of opportunity, and thieves prey upon vacationers,” said Becky Frost, consumer education manager for Experian’s ProtectMyID.

If your passport or credit card is lost or stolen on a trip, time is of the essence. The sooner you contact the local embassy or consulate or call your bank, the sooner you can get a replacement, as well as stop any unlawful use of your information.
The advice: Make photocopies of your passport and credit cards and store those copies securely somewhere, like the hotel safe. Alternatively, you could scan copies of your passport and cards, encrypt the copies and save them online.
___
ABOUT THE WRITER
Carolyn Bigda writes Getting Started for the Chicago Tribune. yourmoney@tribune.com.

Photo: You don’t want this to be spoiled by identity theft. SandeePachetan/Flickr

Morgan Quinn: 5 Ways Divorce Can Affect Your Credit Score

By Morgan Quinn, GOBankingRates.com, (TNS)

Many people believe getting divorced automatically hurts your credit, but that is not true. The act of getting divorced itself won’t damage your credit because federal law states your marital status cannot impact your creditworthiness — lenders are prohibited from even asking about your marital status unless it could directly affect your loan.

The myth really comes from the indirect impact the financial issues surrounding divorce have on your credit score. Here are some examples of how divorce can negatively impact your credit score.

YOUR EX FILES FOR BANKRUPTCY
The divorce decree will state who is responsible for any accounts (including debt) opened during the marriage, but it does not absolve anyone from responsibility to pay in the lender’s eyes. So even if your divorce decree says your ex-spouse is responsible for paying any joint debt, the lenders may still come after you if your ex declares bankruptcy. You can try to fight this issue in family court, which will take time and may be more costly than paying the debt itself. Or it might be time to file for bankruptcy to remove yourself from the debt, even if bankruptcy will have the unfortunate side effect of tanking your credit score.

YOUR EX STILL HAS ACCESS TO YOUR ACCOUNTS
An angry ex-spouse can rack up debt on joint credit cards, drain joint bank accounts and leave you broke. Now, not all of this is necessarily legal, but if your ex (or anyone else) is an authorized user on any of your credit cards, you are the one responsible for any debt incurred.

An ex might also still have access to account information or logins to charge credit cards or bank accounts that are solely yours.

With authorized or unauthorized access your accounts, your ex-spouse can rack up debt that will count against your credit score. The best thing to do is change all your banking passwords and remove your ex’s name from all your accounts.

YOU HAVE HIGH LEGAL BILLS
Despite the numerous ads touting quick and easy divorce help, getting divorced isn’t cheap. Divorce attorney’s fees can vary and a lot of the legal costs depend on your assets, debts and other issues that need to be resolved. A study from NOLO.com found the typical divorce attorney charged about $250 an hour and the total bill for divorce legal fees ran from $1,000 to $30,000.

If you rack up attorney’s fees, you may have a hard time paying off both those fees and your own bills — especially if your ex-spouse was the breadwinner in the partnership. This can lead to a cash shortage, late payments and high credit utilization, all of which have a negative impact on your credit. The best way to avoid this is by drastically downgrading your lifestyle to reduce expenses or increasing your income with a second job or side work until you can pay off the divorce costs and get back on your feet.

YOUR EX DOESN’T PAY YOUR JOINT BILLS
As previously mentioned, the divorce decree will determine which spouse is responsible for joint debt but lenders only care about whose names are on the account. Let’s say your ex got the house, but the mortgage is still in both your names. If your ex-spouse makes a late mortgage payment or doesn’t pay at all, your credit is going to take a big hit. This can even apply to other shared utilities like electricity or Internet for which you were both originally listed as account holders.

For this reason, many divorcing couples decide to close or refinance joint debt to get one person’s name off the loan. If you have joint bills or debts with your ex, you can protect your credit by either getting your name off the accounts or by making any missed payments until you can collect the funds in court. You should also have your name removed from any previously-shared service accounts like phone bills, utilities, Internet, or cable.

YOUR EX STEALS YOUR IDENTITY
Divorce can get messy and ugly, and a disgruntled ex-spouse has access to all your personal information including your social security number, birth date and mother’s maiden name. It’s completely illegal but all too easy for your ex to steal your identity and secretly rack up debt in your name as an act of revenge. You may not even know about these illegal accounts until they’ve already gone unpaid and started to damage your credit.

Protect yourself by signing up for a credit monitoring service that will alert you to any new accounts opened in your name or changes to your credit history. If you suspect your ex-spouse has stolen your identity, contact the credit bureaus and put a 90-day fraud alert on your credit accounts.

When you get divorced, you are breaking up with your spouse, not your creditors. A divorce decree won’t absolve your responsibility to pay your lenders. The best way to protect yourself and your credit score is by removing your name from as many accounts as possible. If you can’t do that, then make sure your ex is following the arrangement set forth in the divorce decree, or you’ll have to make those payments yourself or declare bankruptcy to completely remove your responsibility to pay.

Morgan Quinn writes for GOBankingRates.com, a leading portal for personal finance news and features, offering visitors the latest information on everything from interest rates to strategies on saving money, managing a budget and getting out of debt.

(c) 2015 GOBankingRates.com, a ConsumerTrack web property, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: Teresa via Flickr