The holiday season is well under way. Is your identity well protected?

This is a time of year when we enjoy the company of friends and family, search for that perfect present for someone special and prepare huge celebratory feasts. Unfortunately, identity thieves love the holidays just as much as we do. People are busy, distracted and doing a ton of shopping online and in person.  It all adds up to more opportunities for identity thieves to take advantage of a moment’s carelessness or inattention and get access to all kinds of personal data.

In this nightmare scenario, the embarrassment of having your identity stolen and fraudulently used would be the least of your troubles. It can take a lifetime to undo the damage, and sometimes things can never be made right.

Postal Protection

People tend to think that identity theft occurs exclusively online. While the Internet certainly can provide a crook with many opportunities, snail mail isn’t immune.

Intercepting both incoming and outgoing mail could be well worth the effort for a thief. Many of us receive pre-approved credit card offers in the mail. All someone has to do is change your address to theirs, and soon enough they have a credit card with your name. Intercepting one of your mailed payments gives the thief all he or she needs to know about account numbers, as well as your address, phone number and signature.

Investing in either a post office box or a locking mailbox will help prevent mail theft.

All-purpose guidelines

To help consumers become better informed about protecting their identities, online resources like IdentityTheftProtection.org offer a wealth of information. Here are some other steps you can take to safeguard your data:

  • Don’t use easy-to-guess PINS or passwords such as 1234, birthdates, anniversaries or street addresses. Try for a combination of letters (uppercase and lowercase), numerals and symbols. If you can’t remember your codes without writing them down, keep your cheat sheets well hidden.
  • Conventional wisdom also calls for using unique codes for each account and changing them frequently. Using the same PIN or password for everything could allow thieves access to all your accounts as soon as they steal the first one.
  • All electronic devices need security measures, such as anti-virus, anti-malware and firewalls, which should be kept up to date.
  • Understand that credit card companies and financial institutions do not send you email or texts requesting personal information. If you get a suspicious email or text purporting to be from a financial institution, don’t respond. Call your bank or credit card company.
  • Protect your offline data by keeping personal records in a secure place and shredding everything you don’t absolutely have to keep.

Although thieves can’t steal who we are as a person, they can take enough information to masquerade as us. The information that represents our official identities can be used to make purchases with credit cards, withdraw money from bank accounts and even obtain medical care under false pretenses. And we won’t know about any of it until a credit card is refused, a bank hits us with overdraft charges or we start receiving stern inquiries from government officials.

The old adage about prevention being the best cure serves us well. Implement these basic steps to help protect your personal data during the holidays and all year-round.