With supply chain snarls still plaguing parts of the U.S. economy, many consumers are turning to gift cards as the holiday present of choice this year. In fact, according to the website Research and Markets, the United States gift card industry is expected to reach $188 billion in 2022.
Why is gift card fraud such a problem?
Because of the small dollar amounts involved, gift card fraudsters face a low probability of prosecution. It’s also easy to convert gift card value to cash or merchandise. In other words, this kind of fraud is relatively risk-free and easy to pull off.
In one common scam, a crook goes to a retail establishment, grabs a handful of gift cards from an out-of-the-way stand or kiosk, and records the card numbers using a magnetic strip reader. After returning the cards, the crook heads home and repeatedly checks balances on the merchant’s website until the numbers are activated.
The thief then spends or transfers the money on the card before the legitimate buyer or gift recipient has a chance to use it. Less sophisticated scammers may simply scratch off the card’s coating and replace it with a sticker, hoping the buyer won’t notice.
You can scam-proof your gift card experience by following these tips:
Don’t pick the front card. Crooks are impatient. They often return compromised cards to the most accessible place on the rack. Select your gift card from the middle of the rack.
Buy gift cards online. Purchase cards online, directly from the business that issued them. This reduces the potential tampering risk.
Inspect packaging. If you purchase gift cards in person at a store, examine the cards for signs of tampering. It’s safer to buy from stores that keep gift cards behind the counter or in well-sealed packaging.
Register the card. If a card issuer lets you register on their website, do it. You’ll be able to check your balance regularly and identify any abuse.
Don’t give out card information to callers claiming to be from government agencies, tech companies, utilities or other businesses. Only scammers ask you to pay fees, back taxes or bills for services with gift cards.
Don’t buy gift cards from online auction sites. They could be counterfeit or stolen, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
If you think you’ve been scammed, contact the store directly and report incidents to local law enforcement.
In today’s digital age, it is impossible to avoid the internet. Even if you don’t have a computer and actively avoid social media, there is information about you in some corner of the web. Here are some ideas to help you manage your digital footprint:
Actively manage your security settings. Every app, social media site and web browser have multiple layers of privacy and security settings. When you download a new app or register with a new site, don’t simply trust the default settings. Look through the options yourself to ensure you are comfortable with the level of privacy. One thing to watch for with apps on your phone is location settings. Some apps will track your location even when the app isn’t running.
Protect your online image. Career search firms now have strategies built entirely around recruiting through social media. In addition to recruiting, human resource departments will vet prospective employees by reviewing social media profiles. Pay attention to what others post about you, as well. If you are uncomfortable with what they are sharing, have a conversation with them and ask that it be taken down.
Set boundaries for yourself. According to the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of Facebook users visit the site on a daily basis. And 51 percent say they visit multiple times per day. Try to find the balance that allows you to enjoy connecting with others online, but doesn’t negatively impact other parts of your life. In addition to time spent, draw a bright line between what you consider shareable versus personal information. If you have these boundaries in mind when on social media, it will help you think critically before continuing to scroll or posting something.
Know your friends. Be aware of who you are connected to on social media sites. Be cautious of accepting connection requests from people you don’t know, as some of these requests could be a phishing attempt to swipe confidential information.
The best defence of your private information is you. Having a plan and actively managing your online profiles is the best way to minimize the chance of your personal data falling into the wrong hands.
Companies are following your every move. When you have a cell phone, they are tracking what apps you use, where you go, who you talk to and more! Other smart devices listen to your conversations in your home, keep track of what you view on your TV, and report where you visit and what routes you take to get there. Even worse, the more you share the greater the chance a hacker gets this information.
Consider these tips to more actively protect yourself and your information.
The power of the opt out
Apple recently introduced an opt out feature on their iPhones. Historically, when you download a new app onto an iPhone, you have to manually opt out of sharing your device’s data. Now when you download a new app on your iPhone, you’ll be asked whether you want to opt in and allow the app to have access to your information.
So if you are an iPhone user, start with the opt out and then deliberately select who you wish to give access to your information. And opt out does not have to be global. For instance, a direction function needs your location when you use it. But it does not need to be turned on all the time.
Leave opt-out as default on iPhones and set default to opt-out on other mobile phone brands.
Review all apps and turn off tracking and data sharing.
Actively turn off your phone if you do not wish to be tracked.
Review all smart devices and select your opt out options. Include TVs and personal assistants in your review.
Protect your web browsing
Companies love to keep tabs on your browsing habits. And it is not just limited to their own sites. They might spy on ALL your activity. They see every website you visit, monitor all your clicks, and track all social media likes and videos you view. They then use this information to determine what you see and read. In short, they control your world view, both in content and in what ads you see.
Actively use ad blockers such as AdBlock and uBlock.
Turn off cookies and periodically empty your cache.
Avoid downloading any and all extensions unless absolutely required.
Use best data protection practices
As the internet and smart devices evolve, so do the thieves that wish to steal your identity and your financial resources. So keep up-to-date on best data protection practices.
Vary passwords and user IDs. Keep track of them outside of your computer.
Keep operating systems and software up-to-date.
Encrypt your emails and computer hard drive.
Keep banking information off your cell phone.
Back up all your devices remotely.
Use current antivirus software.
Monitor your credit reports for any suspicious activity.
Confirm before opening suspicious emails or attachments.
Most importantly, stay informed. In the end, the burden of protecting your data always falls on you.
You hang up the phone with a huge smile on your face. You just learned that you’re getting a pretty sizeable tax refund this year. Now all you need to do is kick back and wait a week or two for the IRS to wire the money into your bank account.
This good news, however, is unfortunately short lived. The very next day you get another phone call.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but someone else has already used your Social Security number to file a tax return.”
You’re told that you’ll still be able to eventually get your nice, big tax refund, but it may be several months before you see the money. You first need to work with the IRS to resolve your case of identity theft.
There’s a secret weapon you can now use to protect your tax return – an Identity Protection PIN (IP PIN).
Beginning this tax season, all taxpayers who can verify their identities are eligible to obtain an IP PIN. An IP PIN is a 6-digit PIN that offers additional protections when filing your tax return. This one-time-use number is sent to you by the IRS and must be entered on your tax return along with your Social Security number. Since the IP PIN is a one-time-use number, you will receive a new IP PIN number each year from the IRS.
If someone tries to fraudulently file a tax return using your Social Security number, they will be unable to do so without this IP PIN.
What You Need to Do
How to get an IP PIN. To obtain an IP PIN, click here to visit the IRS’s Get an IP PIN tool to opt into the IP PIN program.
If your identity has already been stolen. If someone uses your Social Security number to fraudulently file a tax return, ask for help to find out next steps for getting your identity fraud case resolved with the IRS.
Once in, tough to get out…for now. As this is the first year the IRS is making the IP PIN program available for anyone who wishes to use one, they are not ready to let you opt out once you agree to participate. They anticipate adding the opt-out feature in the near future.
How companies use your identity and what you can do to protect it.
One of the most valuable things you own is YOU. Your identity includes the basics – where you live, your age, and your gender. But it also includes your interests, who you know, and what you buy. So, do you know who has your identity? Here’s the life cycle of your identity and what to do to protect it.
It gets collected. Think about the organizations that legally collect information about your identity – your employer, government entities, insurance companies, banks, credit reporting agencies, and non-profit organizations. And then add those companies you give your identity to freely – like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and any other website or social media platform you visit.
It gets stored. Once your identity gets collected, it then needs to be stored somewhere. Storage is most often on servers or locally on a computer or mobile device. This is one of the core concerns with Tik-Tok, a Chinese-originated short video service. The concern is that a foreign entity will have stored U.S. citizen’s interests and behaviors that can help identify potential targets that can be manipulated.
It gets sold. Once information related to your identity and interests are collected, most organizations then sell it to other companies. Not only is information about your identity sometimes collected without your knowledge, this information is then monetized. Your viewing behavior can also be actively manipulated by the sites you view. So if you read articles about cats, you are going to get a lot more articles about cats and get ads that relate to cat-lover behavior. This is often so subtle, you do not realize it is happening.
It gets accessed. If your information is considered a public record, anybody can see it. Business licenses, property tax records and real estate ownership are just a few examples of personal information that anyone can access.
It gets stolen. Identity thieves are always looking for ways to access your information. Thieves either hack one of the organizations that collects your confidential information or find a way to trick you into giving them your information, with techniques such as phishing emails.
What you can do
Opt-out of providing personal information. The best place to start with protecting your identity is knowing who has access to it and asking if they really need it. Consider opting out of providing information if possible.
Be vigilant with the data you possess. While you can’t control how secure an insurance company’s servers are, you can control how secure you handle the information and documents you possess. Be on the lookout for phishing emails, verify requests for your information and don’t forget about getting rid of documents the old-fashioned way with a shredder.
Deliberately monetize your identity. Stop giving away your identity without a thought. Here’s an idea. Consider you are worth a million dollars. Then see what these services are paying you for your information and how they are using it. If this little exercise gets you to pause before signing up for a new service, then the exercise is worth it!
Shuttered businesses are realizing that lifting lockdown restrictions doesn’t mean a return to business as usual. Social distancing guidelines and a public wary of venturing into crowded environments means light customer traffic for many businesses.
Here are several ideas to help local businesses financially as they re-open their doors:
Continue buying gift cards. For many small businesses, positive cash flow is the primary factor whether they survive this economic downturn. Buying gift cards is a great way to get them the cash they need now, while still providing value for yourself down the road. Even better, if you are in a position to do so, consider giving a gift card to a friend who’s negatively been affected financially. Also consider donating gift cards to schools, churches or non-profit organizations. Just remember to keep your receipts so you can potentially claim a tax deduction!
Tip more than usual. Of all industries impacted by the economic downturn, the leisure and hospitality industry is being hit the hardest. On top of the millions of workers in this industry that have filed for unemployment, even more have had their hours scaled back. When you order takeout or pay for a service, consider tipping more than you normally would. It may not seem like much, but every extra dollar helps.
Shop online locally. The prices you pay might be higher, but when you add the property taxes, local employment taxes and donations to school events that local businesses fund, the added costs are worth it. Also, with many retail shops restricted to limited foot traffic because of social distancing guidelines, online sales are currently a significant source of revenue for many small businesses.
Write a review. Reviews left on Google, Yelp, and other sites are a major source of new customers for local businesses and restaurants. Take the time to leave a positive review for each of your favorite local businesses so new, potential customers can find them.
Offer your services. With the change in spending habits, businesses are forced to adapt. If you have skills and knowledge that could help a small business make the transition, consider donating some of your time. Some examples include web development, marketing strategies, cash flow management and budgeting.