Whether buying online or at a bricks-and-mortar store, shoppers should take extra precautions to safeguard their personal information these next few weeks, according to law enforcement and state officials.
According to the Maryland Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the country.
During the holiday shopping season, when many are spending more than usual, consumers are more exposed to potential scams and fraud, said Hugh Williams, identity theft program administrator of the division.
Identity theft tactics run the gamut, from stealing purses or wallets to obtain credit card numbers to such high-tech crimes as computers hacking.
Recently, ATM skimming has been making a comeback in the Baltimore area, according to Williams.
Last month, the Maryland State Police discovered a skimming device placed on an ATM at the Bank of America branch in Eldersburg, which compromised about 100 debit cards.
A skimmer is a tiny card reader used to steal information found on the magnetic strip of a credit or debit card. They are easily concealed, so people should inspect ATMs for potential signs of tampering, such as scratches, tape and any unusual appearance, Williams said.
“If something looks off, there’s a good sign there’s something wrong,” he said.
That applies to online shopping as well.
Williams said people who plan to shop on the Web should make sure their Internet connection is secure and their anti-virus software is up to date. They should stick to Web sites for major retailers, which are more likely to be legitimate, and always look for a lock symbol in the lower-right corner of the page before making any purchases. The symbol means the page is secure, he said.
Melissa Hockensmith, deputy state’s attorney in Carroll County, said people should never give out personal information, such as Social Security numbers or bank account numbers, unless they absolutely know the business or person they are dealing with is legitimate.
She said she gets many complaints about phishing e-mails, which appear to be sent from a bank or other business. The e-mail may prompt the recipient to click on a link or enter account information; instead, the person should contact the business directly to find out if it is legitimate.
During the holidays, people also risk having their credit cards physically stolen.
Car break-ins tend to increase at this time of year, so it’s wise for people to always lock their car doors and never leave wallets, purses or valuables in plain view inside a vehicle, she said.
“It’s just an invitation,” Hockensmith said.
Lt. John Shippee, who oversees the fraud investigative unit of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, said people also risk identity theft when they fill out applications for credit cards at retail stores.
Sometimes, the clerk will just discard the application, which may contain the person’s Social Security number. Someone can use that information to open up lines of credit.
“You won’t know it until you start receiving bills or a collections agency contacts you,” Shippee said.
Hockensmith said that if people suspect they have been victims of identity theft, they should file a police report, put out a fraud alert on the credit card and close the tampered account. She advised people to act immediately once they suspect something is amiss.
According to Shippee, it takes very little information for an identity thief to drain a person’s bank account. “With all the information we give out and how easy it is to be compromised, there’s no 100 percent safeguard,” he said.