'Tis the season: Protect your money and personal information this holiday

The holidays are all about shopping and giving, but they also provide a prime opportunity for scammers to take advantage of your hard-earned money.

Welcome to Money Matters, featuring WSECU's Briana Mickelson, VP, Member Experience. In this ongoing radio segment and blog series, you'll find personal finance advice, spending and saving tips, and information about current financial trends. Gain practical knowledge you can use every day to help you make the most of your money. Explore the latest episode topics each week.

How to prevent identity theft

Identity theft is a growing problem across the country. In 2019, 1,473 data breaches exposed nearly 165 million sensitive records to potential identity theft.(1) Fraud incidents the same year resulted in $16.9 billion in losses.(2)

Identity theft happens when someone uses your personal data, like your name or Social Security number, to commit fraud. Once thieves have this information, they can do pretty much anything they want with it. They can access your financial accounts, open new accounts and credit cards in your name, steal your tax refund, get health care services, and even use your identity during an arrest or criminal investigation.

And the use of your stolen identity can go on for years before it's detected.

Fortunately, there are several ways you can protect your personal information from becoming compromised. Here are some of the most common ways information gets exposed and what you can do to prevent or mitigate the damage.

Lost or stolen wallet: This can lead to someone accessing all the information in it.

What you can do:

  • Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet.
  • Remove any credit cards you don't use regularly.
  • Don't use your wallet to store scraps of paper that contain passwords or PINs.
  • Keep photocopies of your credit cards' front and back in a secure location so you can easily call the issuers if they're stolen.
  • Temporarily turn off your credit card if you have that option or cancel it and get a new card issued.

Mailbox theft: Someone takes your mail out of your box or forwards it to a different address.

What you can do:

  • Sign up for USPS Informed Delivery. You'll receive a digital preview of the items that should be delivered, so you'll know if things are missing.
  • Get a secured or lockable mailbox.
  • Retrieve your mail as soon as it arrives to limit the potential for theft.

Public Wi-Fi: Hackers can see everything you're doing on your coffee shop's public Wi-Fi.

What you can do:

  • Don't bank or shop while using public Wi-Fi.
  • Use a virtual private network (VPN) for a secure connection.
  • Limit your browsing to sites that are encrypted by looking for the "https" or lock symbol at the start of URLs.

Database hack: Anywhere you have an account can be hacked, exposing your sensitive information. The Equifax Credit Bureau hack affected 147 million people.(3)

What you can do:

  • Assume your data is already accessible.
  • Check your credit scores often for unexpected changes, like new accounts or inquiries from credit applications.
  • Double-check financial and insurance statements.

Skimming: Thieves can get your credit card information by attaching a small physical device to the card reader at a brick-and-mortar location, like a gas pump or an ATM.

What you can do:

  • Use cards with chips as they have added protections.
  • Visit the cashier to pay for gas since pumps aren't monitored for skimmers.
  • Set up email or text alerts that tell you when your card is in use. If the use isn't authorized, you can report it immediately.

Looking over your shoulder: Thieves can pick up your password by watching you enter it. Credit cards can be photographed with a smartphone. Businesses might leave information out in the open.

What you can do:

  • Be aware of your surroundings.
  • Don't leave cards out where they can be seen.
  • Cover your keyboard with your free hand when you key in passwords.

While these tactics can combat specific types of data theft, there are some additional things you can do to prevent yourself from being a target in the first place.

  • "Password protect" your mobile device and ensure it's set to lock automatically when not in use.
  • Use strong passwords and an authenticator service to approve logins.
  • Be careful about what personal information you post on social media.
  • Shred documents you don't need before you throw them away.
  • Don't fill in your Social Security number on forms. If it's really needed, find out why and how it's protected.
  • Bank with an app instead of a browser.
  • Read all financial documents carefully.

The closest thing to foolproof protection against identity theft is your behavior. Your vigilance will keep you one step ahead in the game.

Spotting gift card scams

Gift cards have become popular for gift giving. They're easy to get and easy to use, and because you're giving the gift of choice, recipients can buy something they really want.

Unfortunately, gift cards have also become popular with scam artists. Gift cards are nearly as untraceable as cash and much more transferable. They're also tampered with often before they even leave the store.

Thieves will open up gift cards, obtain the numbers and re-seal the package, hoping you don't notice. Some will scratch off the PIN and cover it with a sticker that looks legit. Once you buy and activate the card, the thief can then use it.

The best way to protect yourself is to examine gift cards carefully to see if they show any signs of tampering. Check packaging seams. Check to see if the PIN has been scratched off. Scammers will try to do as little damage as possible, so keep a sharp eye. If the card or the packaging looks tampered with, turn it in to the cashier and buy a different gift card.

It's also easy for thieves to get the numbers from gift cards that don't have packaging and then put them back on the rack. They then wait for you to purchase the card loaded with a dollar amount. Once the balance appears, they use the card immediately online or make a duplicate card for in-store use. This scam works best at small stores where only a few cards are accessible at a time.

If someone tries to lead you to purchase a specific card, watch out. Thieves will tend to return gift cards to the front of the rack, so get one from the middle or the back.

One of the best ways to avoid cards that have been tampered with is to buy gift cards from retailers that keep them stored behind or close to a register. It's no guarantee, but thieves are less likely to tamper with cards in plain view of a cashier.

When you're ready to check out, keep your eyes on the card at all times, and ask to have the card handed back to you as soon as it's activated. Make sure the gift card number matches the one on the activation receipt.

It doesn't happen often, but there have been instances where an unscrupulous cashier activates a card, makes a quick switch, hands back a card that hasn't been activated, and then pockets the card you actually bought.

Tampering with physical gift cards is just the tip of the iceberg. Thieves can use bots, or automated programs, to run through a store's gift card balance system looking for a valid card with an activated balance. Once there's a match, they use or sell the card information. Often, the unsuspecting gift card owner doesn't find out until the next time they go to use the card and discover the balance is suddenly gone.

Using gift cards as soon as you get them is the best way to protect yourself from this scam. The less time your card maintains an active balance, the less time there is for a bot to find it. Some gift cards can be registered with the card issuer, which may provide additional protections in case the balance is stolen. It's still a good idea to check your balance regularly.

Some gift card scams are much more costly and nefarious. In another scam that's been cropping up more frequently, you may get a call from someone claiming to be an IRS agent and threatening to have you arrested because you owe back taxes. It could also be someone posing as a state trooper accusing you of failure to show up for jury duty or a fake utility provider threatening to shut off your electricity for a past due bill. Whatever the scenario, the scammer will give you the option to pay the fine or debt with gift cards or MoneyPak cards to avoid the punitive consequences.

Once you agree and the gift cards are purchased, the scammer will have you read the card numbers over the phone. Then the scammer drains the value of the gift cards and the money becomes virtually untraceable.

This is a type of imposter scam. It seems like an easy one to spot, but Americans lost over $576 million on imposter scams in 2019.(1)

Protecting yourself from this scam means arming yourself with knowledge. You can't pay taxes, bail or court fines with gift cards, and no government agency or reputable business will demand or accept payment with gift cards. Hang up on anyone asking for payment with a gift card. Don't engage with any emails asking for payments with a gift card. If you have any concerns about your tax status, call the IRS directly or visit the official website at

Unsurprisingly, it's not just money that scammers want. Identity thieves have also successfully stolen personal information by enticing victims with free gift cards. Sometimes the gift cards are offered just for filling out a survey, or you may be informed you've "won" a contest you don't remember entering.

Often, the thieves will ask you to fill out some documents or surveys that require you to include personal information like a Social Security number. They may also ask you to include credit card information to pay a small shipping fee to receive your gift card. Once scammers get this, they can steal your identity and drain your accounts.

If you come across this scam, do not engage. Hang up the phone. Delete the email. Keep this phrase in mind: "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

While there are many different types of gift card scams, there are just as many ways to protect yourself:

  • Check your card balance in private (no over-the-shoulder gawkers or three-way calls allowed).
  • Buy gift cards from the source or only from reputable resellers.
  • Save your purchase and activation receipts until the card is redeemed.
  • Purchase cards only for friends and family, not for strangers.
  • Never give out financial or personal information.
  • Look for misspellings and poor grammar as indicators of scam communications.
  • Check for URLs not affiliated with the company's domain name or address.
  • Be wary of communications from unsolicited sources.
  • If you spot a scam or you've been a victim of one, report it to the Federal Trade Commission and the Washington State Office of the Attorney General.

Gift cards aren't going anywhere. They're as popular as ever. Just be aware of any irregularities you encounter when buying gift cards. Watch out for anyone asking for gift cards as payment. Steer clear of any deal that sounds too good to be true. Do all these things, and your gift money will go to the gift and not the grifter.

Look out for charity scams during the holidays

It's the holiday season. The spirit of giving is in the air. Charitable organizations put on big drives for donations at this time of year. That also means scam artists are out there looking to take advantage of your holiday spirit, and they're putting on fundraisers of their own to fraudulently take your money by posing as legitimate charitable organizations.

Here are some things you can do to protect yourself from holiday scammers and make sure your money doesn't go where you don't want it to go.

Do your research

If someone has reached out to you through an unsolicited phone call or text message, be on alert. Don't give out any of your personal or financial information by phone. Instead, visit the charity's official website, or reach out to the organization directly using contact information you can trust.

Don't engage with or click on anything suspicious in emails. Scammers use hyperlinks and attachments for phishing and spreading malware.

Verify the source of any online and social media solicitations. Crowdfunding sites host requests for assistance, but they don't always vet those who they represent. It's on you to do the legwork to make sure the organization is legit. The more information you can get about a charity, the better off you'll be.

If you have questions about the legitimacy of a charity, these places will have the answers:

  • BBB Wise Giving Alliance
  • Charity Navigator
  • CharityWatch
  • GiveWell
  • GuideStar

Watch out for spoofing

Scammers will spoof phone numbers on your caller ID to trick you into answering. Spoofing is a tactic that allows scammers to mimic a local number or the number of an actual charity so that you think the call is trustworthy. If you don't recognize the number, let voicemail handle it. Scammers can be very convincing if they actually get to talk to you.

If the call appears to be coming from a legitimate charity, they should have no problem allowing you to call them back. Ask for the caller's name or extension number, then look up the charity's official phone number through a trusted source and reach out to them directly using that phone number.

You can apply this strategy to emails as well. Scammers can create URLs that look legit but are actually fake. For example, "" might seem like it should take you to the official website for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, but if you search "St. Jude Hospital" on Google, you'll find the correct URL is ""

Also, whenever you see a link, always use your cursor to hover over it — without clicking. This will reveal the actual destination.

Watch out for these red flags

  • Refusing to detail how donations are used
  • Not showing proof of tax-deductible status
  • Using a name similar to a better-known organization
  • Thanking you for donations you didn't give
  • Using high-pressure tactics to get you to donate before doing research
  • Asking for donations in cash, gift cards or by money wire
  • Offering to send someone to get your donation immediately
  • Guaranteeing a prize in exchange for a donation

Don't give out your personal information

This tip is always important, no matter the topic. While some scams aim to take your cash, other scams aim to get your personal info to access your accounts or steal your identity. If a charity is asking for this information over the phone, you might be dealing with a scam. Ask the caller to send a donation form instead.

Even if you have paperwork, do your research. Make sure your charity of choice meets all the necessary qualifications before you hand over any account info. Close enough isn't good enough when money is on the line. If they don't pass the test at 100%, they fail. Walk away.

Don't let scammers dampen your holiday spirit. With trusted charities like the United Way or the Combined Fund Drive, donate away. For lesser-known charities, check their credibility. This way, you can feel confident your money is going to help the people you want it to help.

Tips for safer holiday shopping

With the holiday season just around the corner — and COVID-19 changing just about every facet of life — holiday scams, credit card fraud, and shady retail practices pose a greater threat than ever. But there are ways you can steer clear of seasonal scams to experience safer holiday shopping.

If you're shopping online, be sure to purchase only from reputable, secure sites. You'll know a site is secured if its URL begins with "https" (the "s" is crucial) or displays a little padlock symbol next to the URL. That means it has a valid SSL certificate and is secure. Otherwise, any personal info you provide is at risk of being stolen.

The same is true if you're making purchases over public Wi-Fi, such as in coffee shops, parks, libraries, or hotels. Unless you're protected with a virtual private network (VPN), your account information is visible to any and all prying digital eyes.

When visiting an unfamiliar online merchant, a quick search of reviews at sites like can help you decide who's trustworthy. You can also confirm the types of permissions the store's mobile app requires when you install it. If the app demands unnecessary access to personal contacts or device storage, there might be cause for suspicion.

For online purchases, you should preferably use credit cards over debit cards. That's because debit cards, which are tied to your checking account, don't have the same safeguards as credit cards or even third-party services like PayPal, Venmo, and Google Pay.

Auction sites can be even more hazardous, especially when a seller asks you to pay for an item via wire transfer. This is almost definitely a scam, as no legitimate business will request this, and this type of transaction offers no way to trace your money or get it back once it's gone. Before any purchase, thoroughly check the seller's feedback rating. Too many negative reviews can signal something fishy.

If you choose to shop in person, you may be enticed by ads or flyers promising irresistible deals. Remember to bring the ad to the store with you to make sure the item and price match. Then check the receipt before you leave. It's also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the store's return policy and to keep any receipts for at least 30 days after purchase.

Gift cards are fun, easy purchases. Whenever possible, buy them from trusted sources and known brands. Examine physical cards for any signs of tampering, such as an uncovered PIN number, and always keep the receipts.

This time of year (and especially this year) also encourages an activity known as phishing — when a cybercriminal impersonates a company or someone you know to trick you into providing sensitive information or access to your computer. This scam usually comes in the form of an official-looking email. If an email seems suspicious, do not click on any of the links provided. If the company is familiar to you, then go directly to its website to see if the offer is legitimate.

There are also some preventative measures you can take to keep yourself and your account information safe.

  • Change your passwords before a big shopping spree.
  • Differentiate your passwords for each site you use.
  • Update your antivirus software to protect against the latest bugs and malware. Even if it updates itself automatically, it can't hurt to make sure everything's current and doing its job.
  • Regularly check your account statements and credit report for errors or anything that looks suspicious.

The holidays are a time to celebrate. With a little vigilance and planning, you can keep the scammers at bay and have one more reason to experience joy during this season.

As you manage your finances, remember you're not alone. WSECU is the credit union for Washington. If you need help with personal banking, loans, or business finances, you can contact WSECU here.

Tune in to STAR 101.5 weekday afternoons at 5:50 p.m. to hear money tips and ideas to make your dollars go further, featuring WSECU's Briana Mickelson.

You can visit the Money Matters page on to read more money management advice from WSECU.

Federally insured by NCUA.

Content provided by WSECU, edited by Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Sources for "How to prevent identity theft"

(1) Identity Theft Resource Center. (2020, Jan. 8). 2019 End of Year Data Breach Report.

(2) Buzzard, J. Tedder, K. (2020, April 7). 2020 Identity Fraud Study: Genesis of the Identity Fraud Crisis. Javelin.

(3) Federal Trade Commission. (January 2020). Equifax Data Breach Settlement.

Sources for "Spotting gift card scams"

(1) Federal Trade Commission. (2020, Sept. 30). FTC Consumer Sentinel Network.

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