Safety GIFS

Looking forward to the holiday shopping deals? You and a few other million people. While you probably dread the crowds and might even worry about stampedes, the bigger threat may be falling prey to credit card thieves and scammers, who love this shopping season.

John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL, has some advice for you this holiday.

1. Use credit, not debit. “Whether you’re shopping online or in a store, use credit cards or prepaid debit cards for purchases,” says John Drengenberg, UL’s consumer safety director. “There are more protections on these than regular debit cards.”

2. Buy an RFID-blocking wallet card. You slip one of these cards, which are the same size and shape as credit cards, into your wallet. They protect you from RFID skimming, in which hackers use an inexpensive device to capture information transmitted via radio frequency from your credit card chip without you even knowing. RFID-blocking cards "will shield your credit cards from the radio frequency used to obtain information through your wallet or purse," says Drengenberg.

3. Use a chip card if you have one. Chip-enabled credit cards, aka EMV cards, offer another layer of protection. The chip, which takes the place of the magnetic strip, creates a unique signature for every transaction. Magnetic strips, by contrast, store static data that can be easily copied or “skimmed” by hackers using high-tech equipment as you move through a store. Chip cards "help prevent actions like fraudulent charges by unauthorized parties," says Drengenberg.

4. If you're using your smartphone to pay, take care. Using a smartphone app that stores your credit card information to buy gifts? "Download and store your information only on trustworthy apps with a secure privacy policy," says Drengenberg. Monitor your purchases for any potentially fraudulent transactions. "Also, protect your mobile device with password protection. This may help reduce data theft if it's lost or stolen."

"And if you're making an online purchase via your mobile web browser," says Drengenberg, "be sure you are transferring any personal or payment information over a secure Internet connection." In other words, not the free pubic Wi-Fi in Starbucks.

5. Stay aware of what's going on around you. Scammers may try to look over your shoulder and get your PIN or even snatch your card, says Drengenberg. “In a store you’ve got other eyes and pickpockets. If they get your card, they can do a lot of damage in an hour running around the mall.”

6. Consider using cash. Another option when shopping in stores: “You can save yourself a lot of grief by using cash to foil credit-card thieves," says Drengenberg. If you’re going to be walking from store to store in a mall, stop at an ATM beforehand, he says.

7. Practice safe online shopping. If you're shopping from home, don't be complacent about credit card security, advises Drengenberg. “Shop only at retailers or e-tailers you know and trust,” he says. “Every year there’s something like 25 billion online transactions made and over 200,000 infections affecting banks that involve scammers.” Follow the usual safe online shopping practices. For example:

  • Create strong passwords and change them often. Read about passwords managers here; they can help. Don't allow your computer to store all your passwords. “If someone steals your computer, then they already have your passwords,” Drengenberg says.
  • Use different passwords for each retail site.
  • Make sure your anti-virus software is up-to-date.
  • Make sure you're on a secure page before paying. Look for “https” instead of “http” in the URL.
  • Watching out for fake websites. “if you don’t recognize the URL for an online store, that’s a clue to check into it further before you give information to them or do business with them,” says Drengenberg. "Look for misspellings and bad grammar and punctuation on a website,” he adds. “If the details on the website look suspicious, check into it more carefully.”
  • Log out of the website when you're done.
  • Check your bank statements regularly to make sure all the charges are legit and report anything odd within 60 days of your statement date.

8. If you're shopping online, consider using a third-party payment service, such as PayPal. Because online transactions on these sites require only a login and password, you don’t expose your bank details or card numbers when making purchases.

Related: 12 Crucial Trips for Shopping Safely Online

Steve Evans, MA, is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years experience in daily news, investigative, health and business journalism. Among other jobs, he has served as managing editor of the Central Virginia Newspaper Group, as a senior writer for SNL Financial and as a staff writer for The Progress Index and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.