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How to protect yourself from data theft during the holidays

I was totally blindsided last month after finding out both of the major forms of payment I use — the first, a Visa; the second, an American Express — only at stores that have had breaches, had been compromised and were being used at various retailers around the country. After taking two weeks to straighten out the situation, complete affidavits and dispute charges, I assumed — as I always do — that I was safe.

This week, I’m faced with changing all my default payment methods: my daughter’s dance school, Amazon and other services we use around the house. I’ve received email after email: “Error processing payment.” That happens when you connect a card to every place you spend money.

After the initial shock wore off — and the paperwork was completed — I was left with two choices: cash or check. Ironically, the use of checks has been highly discouraged due to theft and fraud.

So, there I was, walking around with over $300 cash in my pocket, worried I would drop it, lose it or be mugged in the parking lot with a wallet full of cards that had been inactivated due to fraud. I’m not comfortable carrying cash, but I had little choice last week.

Fun, right?


It took me this long — about 15 years of using cards exclusively, and five replacement cards deep, mind you — to see that we may be, just may be, sharing too much of our personal information in person and online. I’ve learned a few things through this experience, and I’d like to share them with you — not only to help you safeguard your personal information, but also to save you some money.

Here are a few tips from me — one of the countless victims of online data theft — to help you protect yourself and your family this season.

1. Never give identifying information to a retailer to complete a purchase or receive a discount

Simply say no. If they give you a hard time, go to another store. If I recall correctly, commerce is the exchange of money for an item or service. It’s not an exchange of your personal information to make a purchase. Retailers have somehow convinced us that shopping works this way. Why must I provide my home phone number to buy milk? And why must I use a loyalty rewards number to receive that milk on sale?

The amount of information we give away is disquieting. Last week, as I carried cash at the mall, I was asked to sign up for text alerts to receive an item on sale. At another, I was offered a pre-approved store card on my very first visit — before I had ever made a purchase. Imagine if I entered the store and demanded the cashier’s personal information to allow her to complete my transaction. We’d be asked to leave! So, why, when it’s us on the other side of the counter, are we given a hard time?

Who knows what happens to that information after they collect it? As I said, I was offered a pre-approved credit card before I ever made a purchase in that store, which means they already had my information. I had no idea how. I stood there wondering who their parent company was, if another company sold my information to them or if I had shopped there at some point and had no recollection. Needless to say, I refused the card.

Many stores are also only willing to give you a discount if you hold their credit card. Do you know how high those interest rates are? Check your statements. The interest rates typically range from 23-26 percent, which means that even with your “20 percent discount,” you’re still paying a 3-5 percent premium on the items you purchased if you carry a balance. That means, you’re paying more for using their credit card, not less. Greet every invitation to open a store card with a “No, thank you.” You’ll protect yourself from sharing personal information, and keep your budget in check.

2. Carry cash

Now, I know carrying cash is very hard for most of us. I haven’t effectively carried cash in about 15 years. My daughter handed me some coins a few weeks ago, and, I’m embarrassed to say, I couldn’t even identify them. Is this a dime? What is this? They must have changed the design! I never touch cash anymore, and I presume you don’t, either. A few things happen when you pay with cash.

The first is recognition. You feel and see the money, then hand it ceremoniously to someone else, watching it pass from your hand to another. That makes the purchasing experience much more real.

The second is accountability. When you’re sitting at home in your underwear shopping online, everything’s so easy, right? You barely have to put down your pint of Häagen-Dazs. Retailers have made it far too easy for us to fork over our cash. You can even plug a card reader into your mobile phone. Scary! One day, I spent over $70 blindly on iTunes music. Have you ever done that? Do you wish to complete this purchase? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. When I saw my bank statement, I thought, “Whoa, Nelly! Did I do that?”

It’s needless to mention all the other things that can go wrong when you hand 12 merchandisers your credit card number. Remember the T.J. Maxx breach? The Target breach? The Ashley Madison scandal? Shall I go on? Giving away our credit card numbers so freely is bad news for all of us.

3. Limit mobile device use

Have you noticed that every action on a digital device has the potential to result in a purchase? I purchased a new phone over the weekend, and, in trying out the preloaded games, I noticed that every single one, at some point, asked me for money. Remember Tetris? Solitaire? Minesweeper? Did any of those games ever ask you to pay to continue playing? It was sickening. How many of us have racked up charges for in-game purchases? I have a simple solution to this problem. Use your phone as a communication device for staying in communication with your family and friends and for work responsibilities. Save the rest for your PC or tablet at home. Let’s not hand our phones over to our kids, except to talk to Grandpa. They have no idea whether those “coins” are real money from Mom or Dad’s wallet.

4. Start browsing privately

We live in the age of 10 Internet Windows Open at Once. We shop on one, check email on another, work on yet another and keep up with our favorite celebs on the last. You know what happens? They talk. The windows talk to each other. Which is why, when you’re looking for a pair of boots over at Macy’s to wear on New Year’s Eve, ads for those very boots magically appear in your Facebook feed. If you search for frying pans on Google, you’ll get ads and coupons for frying pans for the next five days. You can browse more safely. You can browse privately. In Internet Explorer, it’s called InPrivate browsing. In Google Chrome, it’s called an Incognito Window. Don’t let their dialog boxes make you feel like a slimy sneak trolling for porn. It works for browsing and shopping online as well.

While we’re at it: Do we need to be logged into Facebook at all times? Both on our PCs and our phone? Isn’t that a little extreme? Take a break. Log out sometimes. You’ll give them less personal information.

5. Purchase event tickets in person

Have you ever noticed the posted ticket price — for shows, concerts, theater performances and the like — is almost never what you actually pay? I realized this as I tried to purchase tickets last week for my family to see A Christmas Carol at a small, local theater. Patrons were directed to purchase tickets through a third-party website — one that charges a premium for using a card — the only form of payment accepted. I had no card to use, so off I went, during their short box office hours, to bring them a check. I saved $16 by paying in cash, in person. Plus, I didn’t have to enter my entire life’s history to purchase them. I simply handed them the money and received the tickets. It was freeing.

6. Pay attention

The absolute worst quality of this generation is that no one pays attention. We’re constantly rushing around, not paying attention to much of anything. We don’t pay attention to prices, try to purchase everything we need in one store just to get finished, see something online we must have and don’t comparison shop — or we allow salespeople to “find” us the items we need, only to find out that we could have found it online for half the price. Slow down, people. The only thing we’re rushing to do is waste time and money.

Purchase a cell phone lately? Ever hear the old… “This is going to take a few minutes. Why don’t you take a look around the store, and come back when you’re finished?” Do not walk away. Ask questions. Don’t worry about being the pain-in-the-neck informed consumer. They may not enjoy answering all your questions, but you’ll leave with what you wanted, not what they wanted to sell you.

Lastly, take nothing for granted at the cash register. Items ring up wrong all the time. Discount signs on your rack might not apply to the item you picked from that rack. You might be double charged for something. The advertised price for something may not be that price at all. And pay attention when you get to the register. Instead of just trying to be finished shopping, or out of the way of the lady huffing and puffing behind you, pay attention to the transaction. Does the purchase require that you give your phone number, home address and weight of your Maltese? If it does, do you really need to shop there? Think about the information you’re giving away just to get out of the way. And always ask for a receipt. When we refuse receipts, how can we prove what we’ve purchased? How can we return it if we need to? What if our credit card company says we spent $200 on something that should have been $20? Keep all receipts for at least two weeks, in all cases. Even gas. You never know if you might need it.

The past few weeks have been difficult — but eye opening. Forced to use cash, I found that not only have I avoided exposing personal and bank account information, but also undisclosed charges associated with using our cards (i.e., service fees). Being left with only cash provided me a unique perspective. Feeling the money in my hands and knowing how much was in my wallet was like a breath of fresh air, and made me wonder why we ever stopped carrying cash in the first place.

It also helped me to realize how much of ourselves we leave out there, both online and in the traditional marketplace.

But every cloud has a silver lining, as they say. I’ve actually saved myself some money. I’ve also found that with cash in hand, I’m looking much more closely at what everything I purchase actually costs.

In those few days of clarity before I received my new cards, I was able to see just how vulnerable I’ve made myself and just how much personal information I was giving away.

That’s not exactly something I want to worry about over the holidays.

I’m shopping safer and smarter this season, and hope you will, too.

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