The holidays are one of the busiest shopping periods of the year, and for a good reason: 'Tis the season for consumers to take advantage of steep discounts from some of their favourite retailers. Unfortunately, with all of those credit and debit cards transactions taking place, the holidays have also become a prime time for criminals to try to steal personal data and information from unsuspecting consumers.

And the problem appears to be getting worse. In 2019, fraud losses grew to $16.9 billion, an increase of 15 percent over 2018, according to a report from Javelin Strategy & Research. The number of account takeovers – the act of fraudsters using personal information to obtain products and services – also increased, rising to 679,000 in 2018. Both individuals and enterprises are at risk for account takeovers.

“Anyone can be a victim to identity theft,” says Jen McGarry, head of risk mitigation at RBC Wealth Management. As a result, she says consumers have to be more vigilant. "It's important to protect our information and our wallets," she adds.

Here are some tips to help protect your information while shopping online and in person this holiday season:

Use your cards wisely

Credit and debit cards are considered by many to be more convenient than cash. In fact, some retailers today prefer plastic or mobile payments over bills and coins. But consumers need to be cautious when carrying and using credit cards.

If you're using cards while out shopping, only carry the ones you need and leave the others at home. This way, if you wallet becomes lost or stolen, you've limited the amount of exposure.

Protecting your personal identification number, or PIN, is the most common piece of advice for consumers using debit and credit cards. Experts recommend consumers shield the keypad when entering their PIN numbers. Also, never reveal your PIN to others.

Contactless payments can be convenient and they don't require a PIN; however, these cards aren't immune to electronic attacks. Criminals may use specialized card readers to steal contactless card details from peoples' wallets by standing close to them. Be aware of your surroundings and protect cards by putting them in a metal card holder.

Pay attention when purchasing online

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, online shopping is safer than shopping in stores, and can also be easier and more convenient in general. However, there are still risks to online shopping, and consumers should remember to be diligent about sharing their personal information online and pay attention to which websites they're using.

For starters, consumers are encouraged to check that the websites they're buying from are encrypted, which means they have extra security measures in place to protect information. Look for an "s" in the "https:/" section of the web address, which stands for secure. A padlock icon in your browser window also indicates the site is encrypted.

Consumers should also regularly update their computer's operating system. The latest versions usually have better security features that will increase the computer's ability to combat potential cyber criminal activity.

Be cautious when using free public Wi-Fi for online shopping, or transmitting any personal data for that matter. Cyber criminals often prey on consumers using these shared connections to steal information such as credit card details, emails, addresses and other personal data. As a result, it may be safer to enter credit card information or log into online banking sites later, using a network you know and trust.

Finally, if an online deal seems too good to be true, it might be. For instance, if a site is asking for too much personal information or has an unclear privacy policy, it may not be legitimate. Or, if the product is a lot cheaper than on other websites — even for holiday sales — there's a risk it may not be as advertised.

Another online scam some consumers fall for is phishing sites — websites created by criminals to look official in order to steal personal information. Some phishing sites even try to mimic bank or payment sites. While it's not uncommon for consumers to receive emails or texts this time of year advertising great online deals, confirm that the email or text is actually from who the sender says they are. One way to confirm is to type the company's web address into your browser instead of following a link in an email, and ensure it's legitimate.

Be proactive and reactive this holiday shopping season

Even the savviest consumers can be at risk of cyber fraud. McGarry recommends that people regularly review their bank account statements online and when they come in the mail to ensure that all transactions are authorized.

Missing transactions can be just as much of an indicator of fraud as fraudulent ones, she says. McGarry also recommends that consumers report any missing or fraudulent transactions as soon as possible.

"Don't just focus on the large transactions, " McGarry warns. Some cyber criminals will test the water with smaller transactions. If they go unnoticed, they ramp up to higher-priced items.

Consumers can sign up for E-mail or text alerts through their bank, which tells them when there's activity in their accounts, such as credit card purchases or debit transactions. Consumers who suspect fraud should contact their credit card company immediately.

For extra protection, McGarry notes that consumers may also want to purchase credit monitoring services, which act as a watchdog on your credit file and alerts you to changes such as a new account opened in your name or negative information like a late payment reported by one of your creditors.

While most consumers will have to pay for credit monitoring, McGarry says some view it as a form of insurance for their finances — and their identity.

"Some consumers may feel it is worth the investment," she says. "Cyber criminals are constantly looking for access to other peoples' information. As they become more sophisticated, it's imperative that individuals be more aware and vigilant."

RBC Wealth Management, a division of RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Member NYSE/FINRA/SIPC.

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