By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterDecember 5, 2013
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (December 5, 2013) -- A lot comes to mind when the holidays roll around; hot cocoa by the fire, presents under the tree and holiday dinners with Family, but for many, a common word associated with the holiday season -- shopping.
The holiday season is a shopper's dream with deals at every corner, but in the online age we now live, the experience can resemble a nightmare, rife with holiday scammers and the threat of identity theft. There are ways to navigate these threats, however, according to Peggy Contreras, Community Police supervisor for Fort Rucker's Directorate of Public Safety who wants to make sure that people stay safe during the year's heaviest shopping season.
"A lot of people will be shopping online this season, and when they do so, they need to make sure that they are shopping on a secure website," she said. "Most of the time, they should be able to see a little lock pad in the URL that tells them that the website is secure, but if they have any questions about the site, they should call the phone numbers or do anything they can to verify that it is secure."
Most reputable websites will secure their websites with encryption, especially when dealing with financial information like credit card numbers or bank information. Encrypted websites will start with "https" at the beginning of the web address -- the "s" at the end of "http" stands for "secure", according to the Federal Trade Commission website, ftc.gov/idtheft.
The threat of identity theft is everywhere, but people can be more at risk while doing shopping online, said Contreras. If people do their shopping online, she suggests that they only visit websites that they have trusted in the past.
"People need to do their homework when shopping online, or in general," she said. "If you are shopping on a new website that you've never been to before, you need to be extremely careful. If there is any indication to them that the website might be bogus, take the extra step to check it out or avoid it altogether."
People should also be wary of misspelled words in emails and especially web addresses, which are usually telltale signs that the website is fraudulent, she said. Also, people should never divulge personal information through email, phone or text messages, and especially avoid giving out Social Security numbers.
Another threat that people should be aware of are online scammers who will pretend to sell items that they don't really have, said the community police supervisor. Websites that people can buy directly from other people are usually done at their own risk, so she suggests that people avoid those entirely if possible.
Although the threat of identity theft is out there, Contreras said that responsibility falls on the individual to make sure they are protected, and that protection should also extend to their children.
"It would be wise to think about your children because a lot of times we don't think about it, but their identities can be stolen as well," she said. "You don't want to wait until they're 16 or 18 to find out that they have something on their credit report, so make sure you check up on it while they're young."
An extra preventative measure that people can take is to take on a credit-monitoring service, said Contreras. These companies will monitor your information and any unusual activity to prevent identity theft.
Some red flags people should look out for are: mistakes on bank, credit card or other statements; bills or collection notices for services never received; calls from debt collectors about debts that don't belong; unwarranted collection notices on their credit report; or even calls and emails about accounts in their child's name, according to the FTC.
If people experience anything like this, they need to contact one of the nationwide credit reporting companies, said Contreras. Even if there is no issue, she suggests that people do this after the shopping season is over to be sure.
Having one's identity stolen is bad enough, but the recovery from the havoc it can cause to a person's credit report can take a long time to bounce back from, so Contreras said the best form of protection is prevention.
"You don't want to way six months down the road to find out that somebody might have used of your information," she said. "We live in a new time now. We used to sleep with the doors open but now you we can't do that. If you leave your information where someone can get it, they will."