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Season's Grievings: How to Protect Against Fraud, ID Theft at the Holidays

By Jody Robbins


Feeling a little paranoid about your digital presence lately? Your account hacked on Instagram? Had a call from a bank about a spurious charge on your debit card? Clicked on a link in an email you sure wish you hadn’t because … SPAM!?

From these very in-your-face moments to massive data breaches like the recent one affecting the personal info of up to 500-million Marriott International customers, the perils of participating in the online economy are many and they are real. So, what can you do to protect yourself?

Cash, Checks, Card, and Fraud

The rising prevalence of mobile wallets like your smartphone, an increasing number of digital payment platforms, and just plain old convenience are all reasons some consumers have moved their finances fully online.

Twelve percent of consumers “reported that they did not pay with cash, even once, during (2017),” according to the U.S. Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Choice, which also notes “one-third of all consumers made a mobile payment, compared with just one-fourth in 2015.” But the most sobering statistic in the survey results may be this: “In each of the last three years, one-quarter of consumers reported that they or someone they knew well had been a victim of identity theft during the previous 12 months.”

That’s a stat no one wants to be a part of, so The Fuse spoke with a couple of DeVry University faculty members who teach and develop security-related curricula to understand what consumers can do to better protect their identities and their finances. The single biggest piece of advice: Take control of what you can control, says Darrell Kreckel, DeVry’s assistant national college dean and dean of the College of Engineering and Information Sciences. “It’s up to security professionals to do their thing,” Kreckel says, “but we shouldn’t sit back and assume the job is being handled because it isn’t. There are no guarantees.”

Here are a few ways to better protect yourself …

#1: Guarding against the Digital Pickpocket

During the holiday shopping season, some electronic-based scams are actually carried out in brick-and-mortar stores, says Roger Gulledge, national faculty chair and curriculum manager at DeVry’s College of Engineering and Information Sciences.

“There are people with sophisticated skills walking around with devices that can read the magnetic strip on your credit card,” he says. “They can change the coding on the strip so that the card is readable remotely from a few feet away.”

Solution: Research and purchase a card holder based on the scientific concept of a Faraday Cage, which blocks the ability to read or manipulate cards. “It redirects magnetic fields around the card or device, providing a protective barrier,” says Gulledge, noting holiday shopping can be an especially fruitful time for scammers going this route. “It’s always more effective in areas with high numbers of consumers. It’s easier to do in bigger crowds and longer lines.”

#2: Making Your Smartphone Safer

When it comes to using your phone as a wallet or finance manager, it’s probably safer than a credit card from a cyber perspective. A smartphone creates its own version of an electromagnetic field that helps protect it from remote access in shared physical areas. There are dangers, of course, some of which may be allayed by simple safeguards.

“Using your phone as your purchasing instrument, it’s a stronger device and not hackable in the same sense,” Gulledge says. “But, every time you open a website or connect your phone to a computer to transfer files or sync photos, data is being transferred to and from your phone.”

Solution: Invest in antivirus software and keep it updated (PCMag.com’s rates some of them here). This will do a lot to keep your phone cybersafe, but your smartphone already has some pretty hefty protections in place. Therefore, Gulledge advises concentrating on more simple and actionable methods. “I typically recommend people turn off Bluetooth unless they’re actually using it. It’s a big open door into your phone so [scammers] can access and manage it, plus it’s a battery drain anyway,” he says. “It’s the same with WiFi. It’s not useful when you’re walking around shopping. Even if they have free WiFi, you’re taking a risk using it.”

Bonus Tip: To avoid the extra step of going into your phone’s settings to turn Bluetooth and WiFi on and off, add them to your phone’s home screen so you can do so more quickly.

#3: Don’t Trust All Links

Most of us have experienced some sort of email scam, clicking on a link that ends up causing trouble for yourself, family, friends, and coworkers. These assaults on the privacy of your email and your data are becoming more sophisticated and devious these days.

Kreckel experienced this himself recently. “I got an email from someone who happened to know an early password of mine,” Kreckel says. “It turned out they not only had my old password, but said they could control the camera on my computer, had filmed me, and would make it public if I didn’t pay $3,000. You don’t think of having that camera, but people can log into it.”

Solution: The target audience for these kinds of scams includes those who may be compromised and/or naive, often the elderly. First off, don’t send anybody money! Upon receipt of a suspicious email, don’t click on any links. If a link is questionable and you feel the need to proceed, Kreckel suggests doing so on your smartphone instead of a laptop. “They can crack your computer, but aren’t as likely to be successful cracking your phone or tablet,” Kreckel says. “We buy online with almost a sense of faith that everything is going to work out, but that’s not always true.”

Cyber Security, Online Shopping, In-Person

Not all of these are related to security — they’re just good ideas mentioned by Gulledge and Kreckel. “We’re all lazy when it comes to this kind of stuff,” Kreckel says. “Until you get burned, you don’t do anything about it.” Now, don’t be lazy! This takes work.

  • Most carriers have capabilities like tracking and remote wiping built into smartphones.
  • Make sure the content you care about is backed up to the cloud.
  • Change your passwords regularly and look into a password storage app to keep things organized.
  • Don’t trust your passwords to an app? Makes sense. Go old school and create a password using the first letter of every word in the title of a favorite song, joke or memory.

A more comprehensive list of cyber security tips published here. Among the highlights …

General Cyber Security Tips

  • Activate password-protected auto-lock on your device and vary your passwords.
  • Disable automatic log-ins and don’t trust your passwords to third-party services.

Online Shopping Tips

  • Privacy Preferred: Do not make financial transactions on public Wi-Fi connections.
  • Communicate Securely: Email and text messages are not secure. If you need to share your credit card information with an online retailer, share via their secure online billing form.

Physical Purchase Tips

  • Choose The Chip: Credit and debit cards with chip technology are more secure by nature than those with magnetic strips, so make it a priority to use those when you can.
  • Be Diligent: Monitor transactions and account balances, and keep track of receipts. Breaches of security often occur later after you’ve swiped your card.