Too soon to talk about the Holiday Season? Not when it comes to identity theft. According to Javelin Strategy and Research, identity crime hit an all-time high in 2016. So it’s more important than ever that consumers and credit applicants remain vigilant about protecting their personal information.

Beyond the credit card fraud that led to losses of $16 billion last year, there are several other key areas where you could be vulnerable to theft:

  • your children’s personal information,
  • medical services identity theft, and
  • tax-related theft involving your social security number

Identity theft can happen to anyone. But understanding where the greatest risks lie is half the battle – especially during the frenzy of holiday shopping.

Tips to Keep You and Your Family Safe

Safeguarding your family’s personal information is the best way to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft. This includes protecting your credit card, bank account, and social security numbers. And it applies to all forms of paper and digital documents.

If you don’t know who you’re dealing with – especially online – think twice about what information you choose to reveal. And remember that online purchases should only be made from secure websites, with addresses prefixed by a padlock and “https”.

Other important tips for protecting your identity include:

  • using different passwords for all your accounts, keeping them private, and changing them out on a regular basis
  • keeping your computer’s internet firewall and other security features up to date
  • limiting the identity in your wallet or purse to only those items you need to carry
  • checking credit card and bank statements regularly for items you don’t recognize
  • keeping financial papers and personal documents stored safely in case of emergency
  • shredding unwanted paper documents containing account information, rather than just throwing them in the trash
  • requesting and verifying your personal credit report at least annually, to ensure all information is correct

While some of these safety measures may seem obvious, others are less so. Did you know, for example, that active duty servicemembers can place a special alert on their credit reports to reduce the risk of identity theft during deployment?

What to Do if You Think You’re a Victim

If you suspect a data breach – or that someone is trying to gain unauthorized access to your credit report – you have the option of initiating what’s known as a credit freeze. This makes it difficult for thieves to open a new line of credit under your name. It’s also a particularly relevant course of action, given the scale of the security breach at Equifax earlier this year.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, warning signs that a personal identity breach may have occurred include:

  • credit or debit charges you don’t recognize,
  • bills for accounts you didn’t open, and
  • IRS notices claiming you filed multiple tax returns

The FTC advises visiting IdentityTheft.gov to report the suspected theft of your identity. The site also offers free personal recovery plans.

There are a range of identity theft protection services that every consumer can access. Some of these programs involve a monthly fee, while others serve as free or low-cost alternatives. All of them are designed to guard you against – and help you recover from – identity theft. And that’s great news. Because giving your family the gift of protection might be the best way to ring in the holiday season.

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