Spending: How to keep your information safe

Keep your credit secure as you shop.

We often become lax when we go shopping. And holiday time is a busy time for shoppers as well as retailers and thieves are prowling for the opportunity to take your information.

Take the time this year to protect your information. Pay closer attention to transactions and watch out for thieves causing distractions.

Shoulder Surfers. Pay attention to people who are standing close in your space. If you are using a PIN pad at a store, guard your information. Block the other persons view with your body and your hand. If you are using an ATM, pay attention to anyone who is too close for comfort. Put your body between them and the ATM. If you haven't started your transaction, step aside and let the other person go first.

Check the store's receipt. When the clerk hands you the charge card receipt for your signature, look at the copy you are signing-this is the copy the store will keep. Is your entire credit card number printed on it? If so, mark out all but the last five digits. If you leave the entire number on the receipt it is possible that a thief can copy the entire receipt, and on it is your full name, card number and signature. The store only needs the last 5 digits for reference, not the entire number.

Sales Clerks on the Phone. When making your purchase, don't hand your credit card over to a clerk who is on the telephone. Your card information could be relayed to the other person.

Unorganized Sales Clerks. Sales clerks who seem overly rushed or unorganized could be using that to cover up the way they are copying your credit card information. Copying your card information by hand or by a skimmer. If the clerk seems too busy, wait until he/she is finished before handing over your credit card.

Keep sight of your credit card. Don't let anyone walk away with your credit card. This is common in restaurants. The wait staff will take your payment and return with a receipt. What happens with your credit card while it is out of your sight? You'll never know. Pay with cash or accompany the wait staff to the register than hand over your card. Stay with your card until the transaction is completed.

Watch for skimmers. Skimmers are used to record magnetic information. They can be hand held, attached to a belt or attached to an ATM or gas pump. When you use an ATM or gas pump, look for anything that looks like it's attached or not part of the original equipment. Attached skimmers will let you complete your transaction but will also copy your information for the thieves to use later.

Writing a Check. If you write a check, the clerk may ask you for identification. This is normal. What is not normal is for the clerk to write down your identification information. They should not write it down on your check, or anywhere else. They are only allowed to look at it to verify you are the person named on the check. Always remember the clerk cannot write it down, anywhere.

Junk Mail & Pre-Approved Credit Offers. Holiday shopping is filled with flyers, advertisements, pre-approved credit and offers of increasing credit limits. Don't let these get into the hands of mail thieves. Pick up your mail daily. Shred anything that has your name on it, not just pre-approved offers.

Watch for Statements. With more mail delivered during the holidays, you may not be aware that your bank or credit card statements did not arrive. Know when to expect them and watch for them. Check your charges with against your statement. Notify them as soon as you suspect unauthorized activity.

Charitable donations. This time of year charities can be found everywhere. Make sure you know who you are donating to. Imposters may set up legitimate looking collection points. If you want to donate find out a local contact and make your donation directly. Don't make a donation by check or credit card if you are not familiar with the person or organization.

Parties. Holiday parties can be fun. It can also be a means for people to have access to your personal information in your home or at the office. Unlocked file drawers, documents or statements lying out on a desk, and outgoing mail can be an easy source for a thief to pick up. With party activities going on around you, you may not even notice someone slip into your office to steal information.

Steps to guard our information should become second nature. It takes some getting used to because we have to change our thinking. Even though we want to trust people, we should be suspicious of everyone. Over 50% of reported identity thefts have been committed by someone the victim knew. Family, friends, co-workers, service people, sales clerks or associates could all be potential thieves if given the right circumstances.

The holidays can be happy and hectic. Don't let your guard down or provide thieves with easy access to your information. Keep your identity safe this holiday season.

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