The holiday season is filled with decking halls, spending time with family and eating delicious homemade treats. But each holiday season, many consumers become a victim of credit card fraud or theft. And spending your days on the phone with the credit card company and worrying about the crime is a sure way to take the merry spirit from your day. The increased shopping activity, both online and in the malls, makes December the prime season for credit card theft.
While there are no surefire tricks to completely avoiding being a target, the following steps will help you minimize the risk of card theft.
1. Use your credit card instead of a debit card
Liz Weston, personal finance expert and author of "Deal with Your Debt," says that consumers should not be afraid to use their credit card during the holiday season and then pay it off in January.
"A lot of people don't want to rack up credit card debt, but they offer a lot of consumer protection that isn't available with other consumer payment methods," says Weston. "If you use your debit card, then the thief takes the money directly out of your bank account and you have to fight to get it back."
She also recommends using a credit card because it provides protection against other types of theft. When a friend's Christmas presents were stolen from her van, Weston says that the credit card company paid for replacement gifts, but her friend would have been out the money if she had used a debit card.
2. Check your credit card statement every week
Yes, the holiday season is a busy time, but you should still make the time to check your online credit card statement at least once a week. "Look at every single transaction and make sure that you made the purchase," says Weston.
Since most people have more transactions this time of year, she says, it is very easy for a fraudulent transaction to go unnoticed until after the 60-day window in which you can typically make a claim has passed.
"By detecting theft early, you can also prevent more fraudulent transactions," Weston says. "Once someone hits you once, then they will most likely do it again and then you have to wrestle with cleaning up purchases from a number of merchants."
3. Use secure connections and devices
Many people will price-check an item online while shopping at the mall. If they find the gift at a lower cost through an online retailer, then often they will just buy it online right then. Or shoppers transfer money from bank accounts while eating lunch or waiting at the airport.
"If you are conducting financial transactions over public Wi-Fi, then your information will most likely be seen and sniffed by a criminal hacker," says Robert Siciliano, identity theft expert.
Siciliano recommends having a virtual private network, or VPN, installed on all devices. It's also important to make sure that all of your devices have updated anti-virus, firewall, anti-spyware and anti-phishing software installed.
"You should also not conduct financial business on public computers at hotels, the library or the Internet café. Only use computers which you have a relationship with and know are secure," says Siciliano.
4. Set up text or email alerts for each credit card
Weston recommends contacting your credit card companies to set up alerts for purchases meeting specific circumstances. "Many cards will let you elect to be notified when a large purchase or an overseas purchase is charged to your cards," Weston says. "This is a good way to be quickly notified of unusual activity on your card."
5. Update your contact number of each credit card
Often credit card companies are the first ones to notice suspicious activity and will call you to see if you are making the charges. "If they can't reach you, then they will turn off your card and that will inconvenience you especially at the holidays," says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities at Consumer Action. "Take a few minutes to make sure that your telephone number is correct with each credit card." Sherry also recommends letting your card company know if you will be traveling, especially if you will be overseas during the holiday season.
By taking a few minutes to protect yourself from credit card theft, you can devote your time and energy where it should be -- celebrating and spending time with loved ones.