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Holidays are a time for ID theft

As we enter the holiday season, one of the best gifts you can give yourself is an extra measure of vigilance to protect yourself against fraud and identity theft.

Sad to say, a time of year when most of us are counting our blessings and thinking about making the holidays bright for friends and family is a time of increased activity by those who would separate us from our money with scams, consumer fraud and criminal deception. Here are some of my tips, from the perspective of an experienced community banker, to make your holidays safer when it comes to handling your money and monitoring your accounts:

Credit cards are a favorite target for criminals seeking to use your money for their holiday cheer. As you are out and about making purchases in stores or shopping online, be extra careful with your credit cards and keep a more focused eye on them, along with your printed and online statements.

When you are shopping, carry only the credit cards you plan to use. I suggest putting holiday spending on one card to limit the risk of potential problems and also to keep better track of what you're buying and how much you're spending.

I also recommend that you designate just one card for all of your online purchases. This will limit your exposure if somehow that card becomes compromised. Also, you can reduce your chances of falling victim to online fraud by ensuring that your computers have the most up-to-date security software and by reporting any suspicious activity as soon as you suspect it.

When you are in stores, don't let your cards out of your sight or even out of your hands. New security features are in place at many retailers, requiring you to insert your new card with a security chip into a credit-card reader instead of, or in addition to, swiping the card. Make sure take your card when you leave the store.

When using your card to obtain ATM cash, check the machine for evidence of tampering before you use it. Glue and overlays on the card reader are typical evidence of tampering through devices designed to steal your card information and allow others to withdraw funds from your account. If you see anything suspicious, report it ... and find another machine.

One of the best ways to safeguard your bank accounts and credit cards is to monitor transactions online. Yes, go over your monthly statement when it arrives in the mail or by email. But the holiday season is a time when it's worthwhile to go online every few days and make sure that all of the credit card spending you see on your account is spending for which you are responsible.

Don't get hooked by phishing, a form of online fraud in which consumers receive email messages from criminals claiming to represent their banks or credit cards and asking for personal or account information. These contacts usually start with a request for personal or account data for "validation" or to address a phony problem. They sometimes also ask consumers to click on a button that downloads a compromising file.

Reputable banks never ask for your secure information this way. So never give it out and report suspicious solicitations if you get them.

Lots of legitimate charities become more active around the holidays. But lots of unscrupulous characters also get more active. Pretending to raise money for charity is a familiar scam that plays on the emotions of unsuspecting, good-hearted people.

It can be difficult to tell which charities are legitimate and which are not. My advice is to be extra alert and vigilant. When you are approached by email or phone, ask for a call-back number or for the person making the offer to send information to you by U.S. mail. Such validation efforts are a quick and effective tool to separate the real charities from the scam artists.

As we enter the holidays, you'll be better able to enjoy this special time if you're more confident about the safety of your accounts. A few extra but simple steps can provide the security to give yourself the gift of financial peace of mind.

Dale Lewis is president of Park State Bank in Duluth. You can reach her at president@parkstatebank.com or (218) 722-3500.

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