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Shoppers Beware -- 'Tis The Season

James H. Dimmitt -- Tips on keeping yourself from becoming an unwitting Santa.

It's the number one complaint from consumers and it only takes a moment for you to become a victim. While you search for holiday bargains, identity thieves are searching for targets -- unsuspecting consumers. Here are some tips to help you safeguard your identity and other valuables:

1) Protect your account numbers.

Most stores only print the last four or five digits of the charge account on your receipt. However, some stores haven't caught up with technology. If the merchant makes an impression of your charge card, be sure to ask for any carbons that are part of the receipt. "Dumpster divers" can lift account numbers from discarded carbons to steal your identity and your account information.

2) Protect your Social Security Number.

If you are asked to provide a SSN when making a purchase, challenge the cashier as to why they need this information. Request that some other form of ID be used instead of your SSN. There is no valid reason for them to request this information. You provided it when you applied for your account so they should already have this on file.

However, if you've opened a new account, don't be surprised if the cashier asks to see some form of picture ID, such as a driver's license. Don't view this as an imposition; remember that the store is actually taking steps to protect you -- making sure that you are the account holder.

3) Keep an eye on your charge cards and receipts.

Don't let your charge card leave your sight. Most cashiers will keep your card so that they can verify the signature on the receipt. However, sometimes they simply swipe your card, then hand it back to you or put it on the counter for you to retrieve. Check that the card you've been given back is yours and not someone else's. Occasionally, mistakes can happen, especially when the store is busy.

Also, make sure that you take your receipts with you. You'll need them to verify your purchases when your bills come in January and February.

4) Watch for pickpockets.

Professional pickpockets love the holiday shopping season. Open backpacks, large shopping bags and unstrapped purses are a pickpocket's dream. "Be wary of the distractions around you, because that's what the pickpockets like. They usually work in teams," said Edward Gross, a Chicago police officer. "For example, one of the team members fakes a fall, and when an innocent person tries to help, that's when the other pickpocket lifts the victim1s wallet."

5) Use a credit card and a secure site when shopping online.

Paying by credit card is the safest way to pay online. It protects your legal right to dispute charges for goods or services never received, never ordered, or misrepresented.

When you get to the merchant's payment page, the "3http" at the beginning of the URL address should change to "https" or "shttp." This is a sign that the site is encrypting or scrambling your credit card information as you send it to them. Many browsers will even alert you of this via a pop-up window. Whenever possible, print and keep a receipt of your online transaction in case you need it later.

Happy Holidays!

James H. Dimmitt is editor of To Your Credit, a weekly free newsletter to help you manage your personal finances. Subscribe to the newsletter by visiting www.yourfreecreditreportnow.com. He is also author of Identity Theft -- How To Avoid Becoming the Next Victim! available at http://tinyurl.com/bc45.

© 2004 James H. Dimmitt

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The views and opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect those of College Central Network, Inc. or its affiliates. Reference to any company, organization, product, or service does not constitute endorsement by College Central Network, Inc., its affiliates or associated companies. The information provided is not intended to replace the advice or guidance of your legal or medical professional.