I hate to sound like a party spoiler, but with holiday shopping and festivities in full swing, we all need to be prepared for one of the season’s other big traditions – holiday fraud. Yes, fraudsters don’t take a break just because it’s the holidays – in fact, ‘tis the season with the most opportunities to cash in.
According to the RCMP’s Anti-Fraud Unit, $119 million was lost to debit card fraud in 2010, while more than $365 million was lost in credit card fraud that same year. The risks of falling prey to financial fraud and scams are particularly high in the months of December and January due to the sharp rise in transactions taking place both on- and offline.
Here is some simple financial help to keep your holidays fraud-free:
Stay safe while shopping online. The RCMP urges Canadians to increase their personal computer’s security by activating firewalls and updating security software regularly, including anti-virus and spyware software. Always access your financial information from a computer you trust and ensure the website you’re shopping on is secure and encrypted (it should display a padlock symbol in the address bar). Never allow your browser to “remember” your username and password, and after completing your online banking, make sure you log off rather than just closing the window. Fraudulent SMS alerts and online pop-ups increase during the holidays, so be careful where you click. Change your passwords and PINs often and don’t make them predictable or share them with anyone.
Don’t bite the phishing bait! No Canadian financial institution would ever send an unsolicited email to customers asking them to provide account or login information. This type of fraud is known as phishing. According to the RCMP, more than 17,000 phishing schemes were reported in 2010 and we can expect the number to be as high this year. If you receive this type of email, don’t click on any links, report it to our financial institution, and delete the email. Equally, be careful about giving your personal financial information out over the phone, especially if the organization or individual called you, as opposed to a call you dialled yourself. If in doubt, say you’ll call back, look up the organization’s number and call directly just to be doubly sure.
Prevent debit and ATM skimming. Don’t lend your debit or credit card to anyone, and never leave them unattended. If you are conducting a transaction at an ATM, be sure you are in a brightly lit and secure environment. When entering your PIN, always shield the keypad to prevent others from seeing it. If you’re uncomfortable about using a debit payment or ATM machine for any reason, don’t. Report any suspicions to the police, the merchant or your financial institution.
Be careful with your wallet and bag. Keeping tabs on your personal information and possessions is a crucial first step in preventing financial fraud. First on the list is to remove all unnecessary personal financial documents and extra credit cards from your wallet. Always be aware of where your wallet or bag is, especially in the hustle and bustle of busy shopping malls and venues. And be on the lookout for pickpockets prying their trade at this time of year.
Don’t buy a fake Gucci. The police have seized more than $56 million in counterfeit goods in Canada since 2009. So, when you see that cheap Gucci watch, take some time to research what you are actually buying and who you are buying it from. Check online forums to see what other consumers are saying about the retailer and product. Everyone loves a good deal, but sometimes a good deal can be a red flag. Carefully inspect the product for any flaws and check for spelling mistakes on the packaging as potential warning signs.
Don’t donate to a false charity. Be extra careful when making donations to charitable or non-profit organizations. The holidays are a great time to help others, but you want to make sure the organization you are giving to is not a front for fraudsters. If it’s an organization you are not familiar with, always verify their authenticity by checking the Canada Revenue Agency’s website, which has a searchable database of registered charities. Whenever possible, make your donation through your charity of choice’s encrypted website, or send a cheque through the mail.
I hope you have an enjoyable and fraud-free holiday and best wishes for the New Year!
Kathy McGarrigle is chief operating officer for Coast Capital Savings.