How to Avoid Common Holiday Identity Theft Scams

For many Americans, the holiday season means that you’re in the right mindset for giving. Not only is the season full of themes of sharing and giving and spreading holiday cheer, but many people are also wanting to make their charitable donations before the end of the year.

Of course, whenever people are opening their wallets, there are always bad characters looking to take advantage of that giving. Some aim to acquire “donations” to bogus charities, while others aim to steal your identity.

If you want to avoid such scams, here are some good practices to follow to avoid most common holiday identity theft scams and charitable giving scams.

Say no to solicitors. If someone calls you asking for a donation, say no even if you want to give to that cause. Simply tell the person that you don’t give to solicitors and hang up.

If you want to give to that charity, go online and find the best way to donate to that charity directly and use that method. That way, you can be confident that your donation is actually going to the charity. With a phone or an in-person solicitor, it’s often very difficult to verify that they’re actually representing the charity.

I can’t say it enough. Don’t give money to a solicitor. Don’t give personal information to a solicitor. If you’re interested in the charity, follow up independently of the person on the phone, at your door or in email, and then donate directly to the charity itself. Don’t give the middleman a chance to scam you out of your money.

If you’re learning about a new charity that you might be interested in, find out the charity’s name and do the homework yourself. Don’t give directly to the solicitor; rather, get the charity’s information and visit their website on your own. You should also pay a visit to Guidestar and Charity Navigator and find out about the charity independently to make sure that the charity is on the up and up.

Give your larger charitable gifts some careful thought. If you’re giving more than pocket change or a dollar or two, spend some time thinking about what the best use of that money is and do a little homework.

The reason is simple: impulsive decisions are one of the most direct routes to being scammed. A good talker can talk you into giving up your personal information, swiping a credit card or writing a check, and then you’ve given that away to a scammer. Take a breath, step back, give it some time and a little bit of research. Don’t give money to anyone who is talking to you and who approached you.

When you do choose to give, approach the charity yourself; don’t wait for them to approach you.

When you’re shopping online, stick to websites you are familiar with. This doesn’t mean that new websites are unsafe, but that the more well known a website is, the less likely it is that the website is scamming you. Stick either to retailers you’ve shopped with in the past or retailers that have a good reputation within your niche.

For example, most of my online holiday shopping goes either through large retailers like Amazon or hobby retailers I know well and have done business with before, like Coolstuffinc. I only use new, smaller retailers if they come recommended from sources I already trust, and that doesn’t mean I found it via a blog I’ve never been to before that showed up from a Google search. You’re better off keeping your trust threshold high when shopping online.

Always carefully double-check the URL you’re typing in. It’s very easy to mistype a URL, particularly on a mobile device, by simply missing a character or mistyping a single character. Sometimes, this will lead you to an “imitation” site that isn’t really the one you’re looking for, and shopping there and entering your information can result in your identity being stolen.

Simply make sure when you’re visiting a website that you’ve typed in the URL correctly. A simple double-check can make all the difference.

Never shop online using public wi-fi. If you’re out and about and thinking about shopping online, avoid using public wi-fi to access e-commerce sites or any banking or credit card apps or websites. Turn off your wi-fi and rely on your cellular signal or, better yet, just wait until you’re at home to buy things.

Public wi-fi can be hacked by nefarious operators who can steal your credit card information and other data by operating as a “man in the middle.” You’ll make your transaction as normal, but as you’re doing it, the wi-fi is actually “listening in” and pulling out your personal data. Don’t risk it. Use public wi-fi for unimportant things, but avoid it for anything that might involve personal data or credit card numbers.

Look for the padlock. Whenever you’re about to make a purchase online, look for the padlock symbol on the left side of the address bar of your web browser. That indicates a secure signal between your computer and the server. Make sure that padlock is there (and, in most browsers, green in color) before submitting credit card information or other personal information.

Even with a padlock, however, you should not trust public wi-fi to keep your data safe. The padlock is important but look for it at home or over a cellular signal.

Make sure someone is home when packages are to be delivered, or have them delivered somewhere where you can pick them up. This time of the year, people know that houses are often receiving packages on their front steps that contain holiday gifts, and so folks who will snatch packages off of front steps are out in force this time of the year.

You can avoid having your packages stolen or messed with by simply being home whenever a package is to be delivered and answering the door immediately when there’s a knock or a doorbell ring. If that’s not possible, see if you can have packages delivered to a neighbor or friend or family member who is at home during the day, or see if they offer pickup options so you can stop by their office and pick up the packages.

If you want to give while out and about, give cash. Keep some cash in your pocket for the purposes of dropping the money in a donation kettle or buying a cookie from a charity. Keep your credit card and debit card firmly in your wallet and only use them at retailers or at the location of a trusted charity.

There’s nothing wrong with giving, but be sure you’re only giving money and not giving your identity, too.

Avoid offers that seem too good to be true, because they are. No one is going to be giving you a free television set or a free video game console this holiday season. No one is going to be selling a popular item for 90% off this holiday season. Such offers should never, ever be taken seriously, and you should never, ever give anyone involved in such offers your personal information or any form of payment.

Similarly, avoid drawings for prizes that involve giving away too much personal information. Do you feel comfortable with this business having this much information about you? How about other businesses or organizations to whom they might sell their mailing list? If you don’t feel comfortable with that, don’t enter the drawing.

If you get an email demanding you take action on anything that involves money, such as an online order or a bill, don’t click on any links. Instead, separately visit the website that the email claims to be from by searching for and visiting the business or organization itself directly. Scammers have long utilized such techniques to get people to click on bogus links and enter their personal information, and it’s easy to fall prey to it during a busy holiday season, particularly when you’re worried about packages arriving on time.

Above all else, remember that if something doesn’t feel 100% right, just say no and walk away. Often, your gut is the best protection you have against identity theft. If something just doesn’t feel right, walk away from it entirely. You don’t have to give them any money. You don’t have to give them any personal information at all. Just walk away. Just throw the letter in the trash. Just delete the email. There will always be other opportunities.

May your identity be safe this holiday season, and always.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.