The best holiday gift you can give yourself is also the cheapest: protecting your identity.
‘Tis the season for family, food, gifts, and theft.
For ID thieves, the holidays are prime time for profits. Many more of us are shopping online, and we’re distracted by family gatherings and holiday parties, so we’re not as diligent as we might be otherwise.
If you’re going to give yourself a gift this holiday season — and the National Retail Federation says 57 percent of us will — let me suggest something that will last all year long. While the NRF says we’ll spend $127 on ourselves this holiday season, my suggestion is free. It also takes only a few minutes.
How to protect yourself from identity theft
Identity theft is such a pervasive problem that Debt.com has dedicated an entire section of our site to an ID Theft Learning Center. There you’ll find a dozen easy tips for keeping your personal information out of the clutches of thieves.
That’s just the beginning, however. Few people were aware that October was National Cyber Security Awareness Month, which means the awareness failed. Still, researchers used that awareness attempt as an excuse to poll Americans on their thoughts and practices about securing their identities. What struck me most about these polls: Most Americans blame everyone else for ID theft except themselves.
Let’s take a closer look at what they don’t do and should do about holiday ID theft.
Don’t wait for the new year, make a holiday resolution: Change your passwords now.
“Almost 30 percent of the interviewed North Americans reuse or use slightly different versions of their passwords for all their accounts,” declares antivirus firm Bitdefender. This is crucial because if ID thieves hack into one of your accounts and your password is the same for others, you put more of yourself at risk.
Of course, keeping track of a dozen passwords is a real pain. There are “password managers,” which are programs that keep track of all your logins so you don’t even have to know what the passwords are — except the one to that program. There are free versions, and a popular one is LastPass, but you’ll need to pay $12 a year for unlimited mobile access.
A better solution comes from Lois Cahall, a guest host on good Morning America who explained her method to us, called “weird passwords.” Check it out.
Using antivirus software
In that same Bitdefender survey, only 67 percent of respondents said they used antivirus software. This is particularly disturbing because there are highly regarded free protective programs out there. I rely on PC Mag’s annual list, and here is The Best Free Antivirus for 2014.
One popular company offering both free and paid protections is called Avast, and it just released a survey showing, “Four out of five Internet-connected households in the United States are at risk of getting attacked through their wireless router.”
If you don’t understand what a router does, and how it can help or hurt you, Avast and other companies offer free protection for that particular problem. Of course, they want to up-sell you into premium packages, but both the free and paid versions work.
Staying calm if the worst happens this holiday season
Last month, yet another survey revealed, “One-third of American adults say they have had their identity stolen.” Even if you take every precaution, bad things can befall good people. Too often, I’ve witnessed extreme reactions: Either victims do nothing, or they try everything. The first just makes the problem worse, the second wastes a lot of time and doesn’t make it better.
What should you do? Here’s how one Debt.com writer handled it, and another, with practical advice you can use. If you feel vulnerable, it might be worth pursuing a credit monitoring service. Get more details in our Learning Center.
Shop safe this holiday season!
Howard Dvorkin is a CPA and chairman of Debt.com, an educational resource for those who want to conquer all forms of debt in their lives.