Watch out for thieves banking on season

The holiday shopping season can make or break many retailers each year, including some in our own community, but it is also a potential bonanza for criminals who prey on busy consumers.

It is the season of giving — and unfortunately, it is the time for taking.

Now is a good time to think about ways to protect your bank accounts, your wallet and the personal financial information you want to keep private. During the last two months of the year, when stores are packed and online sites are busy, there is a greater potential for theft.

Bank ATMs and gas pumps are two places where digital thieves can gain access to your bank accounts. That’s why the Financial Cybercrime Task Force of Kentucky just issued a warning to consumers, banks and retailers. A skimmer attached to the device where you swipe your card can capture data from the card’s magnetic strip. Thieves can combine this with a hidden camera that records your four-digit PIN and then produce fake cards to clean out your account.

“We’re taking a proactive step to ensure community banks and credit unions are aware of the risk and keeping consumers protected,” Kentucky Department of Financial Institutions Commissioner Charles Vice said in a news release. “However, skimming could happen anywhere a card is swiped — not just ATMs — so it’s important for consumers to be aware of the risks.”

Consumer protection groups recommend you examine card readers for evidence of loose attachments, tape or glue.

Other risks to shoppers include email or phone calls requesting personal financial information. Don’t provide that information except in person at your bank or through a known contact in a phone call you make to your bank or credit card company.

Online shopping requires safeguards. You should never shop, pay bills or do banking when using public Wi-Fi at places like coffee shops or hotels. A thief can access your information whether you are using a laptop, tablet or cellphone.

It’s usually best to use a credit card rather than a debit card in places where you are at risk of identity theft. Credit cards generally provide more protection to reimburse you in the case of fraudulent purchases.

There’s also some risk in filling out credit applications in a store. These are generally done the old-fashioned way with pen and paper, which a clerk then keys into a store computer. What’s left behind is a written record of your Social Security number and other personal information that could be used to open other accounts in your name without your knowledge.

Even with all these digital concerns during the holidays, it’s also important to remember that purse-snatching and pick-pocketing still occur. While you are out shopping and enjoying the season, be aware of your surroundings and take care of your belongings.

It only takes one successful thief to dampen your Christmastime enjoyment. Protect yourself and your money.

Kentucky New Era

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