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Commentary: Avoid using your debit card this holiday season

For many of us, the Friday after Thanksgiving means shopping. But this year, leave your debit card at home.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t find the perfect gifts for your loved ones. Just use a credit card — or better yet, cash — to do it if you can. Why? If your credit card is stolen or fraudulently used, you’re never on the hook for more than $50 in fraudulent charges. But with a debit card, your protection decreases as time goes on, leaving you liable for the entire stolen amount 60 days after your statement is sent to you.

Use a debit card only to get cash at an ATM, and stick to cash or a credit card for point-of-sale transactions.

Shopping online? You might be tempted to order gifts in the local cafe, but beware of making any transactions via public Wi-Fi. Most Wi-Fi hotspots are unencrypted and unsecure. If you use an unsecured network to access an unsecured site, any sensitive information you give away could lead to disastrous results.

At-home transactions are safer than public Wi-Fi, but be careful. Whether your connection is public or private, make sure any e-commerce sites you visit are secure. A secure site will encrypt your payment information. Check for a “padlock” icon in the menu bar, as well as a site that starts with https rather than http. The extra S literally stands for Secure. And finally, make sure your home network’s firewall is turned on and all security software is current.

These kinds of tradeoffs between risk and convenience are a part of life. At the Center for Identity, we’re studying how to reach the right balance between the two, and our IDWise project is helping the public understand the value of their personal information and protect it accordingly.

It is particularly important to take precautions during the holidays, when transactional behaviors increase.

If you really want to protect yourself, remove as much personal information from your wallet or purse as you can. That includes things such as Social Security cards, insurance or Medicare cards, passports, or any credit cards you don’t plan to use. Once you’re out and about, keep your belongings close. Crowded stores and long lines are rich picking grounds for thieves.

For extra protection, you may want to consider a radio frequency identification (RFID) sleeve. Many credit cards and driver’s licenses use RFID microchips that send a unique number, linked to a database with your account information, to an electronic reader when you show your ID or pay for goods and services. They’re extremely convenient; rather than swipe the card’s magnetic strip, users can scan the card without removing it from their wallet or purse.

Unfortunately, thieves can build counterfeit RFID scanners that can capture your information without you ever knowing. An RFID sleeve or wallet, which uses a material such as aluminum to block the chip’s signal, is a simple and affordable way to prevent unauthorized access to your information. For a low-tech solution, simply line your current wallet with aluminum foil.

The Apple Pay system, which rolled out in October, may be the newest way to shop this year. The system allows you to pay for goods and services with your iPhone by storing your credit card information directly on the phone — not on Apple’s servers — and is activated by tapping your phone to the pay terminal.

Some of this may seem extreme or an overreaction to some, but remember that identity theft can incur enormous costs, both financially and emotionally. Ask anyone who has gone through it. Being aware of how to keep your information safe can ensure that you don’t pay for your holiday gifts with your identity.

Bailey writes about identity theft and privacy management for IDWise, the Center for Identity’s online resource center for helping people protect their personal information at the University of Texas.

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