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3 holiday cybercrime threats

Online shopping is convenient but has its dangers. Make sure you're safe as you stuff those stockings.

By Money Staff Dec 21, 2010 2:27PM

This post comes from Ashleigh Patterson at partner site Reuters' Prism Money blog. 


Reuters on MSN MoneyHoliday shopping: It's down to the 11th hour and rather than jostling for a parking spot or fighting for a fitting room, more consumers are choosing to shop online or on their mobile devices.


Sure, shopping online can save you some coin on shipping costs, and using a smart phone certainly makes price comparisons infinitely easier. But consumers are trading convenience for safety, according to a new study sponsored by Norton and conducted by Javelin Strategy & Research.

"It's the amount of activity that makes people more vulnerable," says personal finance expert Jean Chatzky. "People just aren't being as careful as they should be in a number of different ways."


Nearly 12 million people were victims of identity theft during a recent two-year period, according to a study from the U.S. Department of Justice. Approximately 6.2 million victims experienced the unauthorized use or attempted use of an existing credit card, representing the most common form of identity theft.


But just because you're not a fan of plastic doesn’t mean you're much safer -- an estimated 4.4 million people reported misuse or attempted misuse of their personal banking account. The financial loss? A whopping $17 billion.


So where are consumers falling short on safety?


1. No password protection. Is your smart phone password protected? What about your tablet device or your laptop?


Norton's study found 52% of people accessing the Internet via their mobile device did not have a device-access password in place.


For years, experts warned of low-tech criminals dumpster diving to get access to your personal information. If your gadgets aren't password-protected, you're essentially handing over the necessary documents to identity thieves, saving them the trouble of wading through yesterday's coffee grounds and your wee one's soiled diapers.


If you happen to lose your unprotected mobile device and an unscrupulous crook picks it up, it's relatively easy to access your most personal information, Chatzky says.


"That person has (access to) e-mail perhaps from your mother whose maiden name may be revealed and could be used to get through a security line. They have e-mails from your bank account, they have all the contact information. It would be fairly easy for even a not-so-smart cyber crook to take that information and use it to your disadvantage," she warns.


2. Weak or unchanged passwords. Nearly half of the 1,000 Internet users surveyed (46%) said they never change their password on their e-mail account, while a third (31%) of respondents said they never change their password for their banking or financial accounts.


And, perhaps most troubling, 71% said they use the same password across multiple accounts and sites "because it's easier to remember."


"It's amazing to me -- the most popular password is still 123456," Chatzky says. "It's like not having a password at all."


How do you ensure your password is up to snuff? Choose passwords with at least 10 characters, preferably with a combination of letters and numbers that have no reflection on your personal life.


"Somebody who knows you even a little bit, who wants to hack into your account, can think of the name of your dog or your anniversary with your first wife and all of a sudden they're let in there and they can do whatever they want to do," she says.


3. Use of unprotected Wi-Fi or mobile network connections. Ever check your bank account balance from a coffee shop or shop online while waiting in an airport? Accessing your personal or financial information from an unsecured wireless network is an open invitation to identity theft.


"Don't do it in an airport, don't do it in a hotel lobby where the risk is not only about the connection and network being insecure, but somebody can look over your shoulder and quickly get a couple of keystrokes and know exactly where you are and who you are and what you’re doing," Chatzky says.


Scared yet? There’s no need to be a nervous Nelly so long as you're aware of the risks and take the necessary steps to protect yourself and your information. In addition to vigilance with passwords and wireless network connections, Chatzky recommends a couple of simple steps to ensure your identity is protected.


Get your credit report. Consumers have access to one free credit check from each of the three major bureaus annually, allowing for a credit check every four months.

"It is a signal to you as far as whether or not anybody is messing around with your money or identity," she says.


Sign up for online banking. "We know that people who bank online look at their money four times more frequently than people who bank the old-fashioned way. Just looking at your money, like looking at your credit report, will alert you that there is something rotten in Denmark," she says.


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