The holiday season might be filled with lots of cheer and joy, but scammers take advantage of the increased spending and damper the festivities.

According to the myFICO holiday spending survey, 62% of respondents said they are concerned about fraud or identity theft during the holidays, yet 20% aren’t taking steps to protect themselves. 

Consumers often let down their guard among the holiday season activities and become vulnerable to thieves’ seasonal scams like fake charities and e-cards containing phishing scams, says Lisa Schifferle, attorney in the FTC Division of Privacy and Identity Protection

“People should really pare down the amount of information that they carry with them around the holidays and also not announce on Facebook or other social media that they’ll be out of town,” she warns.

College students should be especially cautious with protecting their identity. According to the Consumer Sentinel Network database, 56,689 consumers between the ages of 20 and 29 fell victim to identity theft in 2011--accounting for 23% of the total number of identity theft complaints reported last year and the largest out of any 10 year age range.

To avoid a financial mess and keep credit history safe, here are four ways to prevent credit and debit card fraud and what to do in the case of identity theft.

Review credit score before and after the holidays. Pulling a credit report and reviewing all bank and credit card statements regularly is one of the best protection methods against fraud.

Since each of the credit bureaus allows a free report every year, shoppers can stagger them out every quarter to keep a close eye on any activity, recommends Mechel Glass, vice president of community outreach for CredAbility

 “You can pull the one from Equifax around October or November before you get all of your shopping done and make sure that everything is accurate and there’s nothing fraudulent going on,” she says. “After the holiday season, you can pull your Experian one and make that everything is showing normal and the things that are on your report are valid things.”

Designate one credit card for purchases. While it’s important to be mindful of credit card balances and pay off bills each month to retain a strong credit score, the experts point out that credit cards have more liability protection than debit cards with fraudulent charges.

In the case of a lost wallet or purse, shoppers will know exactly which card to cancel and keep an eye on any suspicious activity, says Glass.

“Always make a copy of the front and the back of your credit card,” she says. “Then you know that if something should happen, you have a copy of that card at home so you can call the 800 number on the back immediately and have it cancelled.”

Be protective online. Experts warn against accessing bank information or shopping online through unsecured connections that allow hackers access to your information.

“Don’t login to your bank account while you’re in a coffee house via a public Wi-Fi network as someone could monitor your keystrokes,” says Gary Raphael, senior vice president, risk consulting at ACE Private Risk Services

Even when using a protected network to shop online, Glass recommends shoppers check for the URL to read “https” (a good indicator it’s a secure site) before entering any financial information.

Schifferle adds that consumers should keep their computers’ anti-virus and anti-malware software  up to date to avoid any new threats and scams.

“[Don’t] click on any links from unsolicited email accounts if you get something saying it’s a charity or a friend in need and it doesn’t look like their legitimate account, especially if there’s a link embedded in the email.”

Keep smartphones secure. Losing a pricey smartphone can be costly on its own, but thieves are often looking for more than just a tech upgrade, says Raphael.

“They might be more interested in your sensitive personal information, including bank account information, than the value of the device or property they can steal,” he says.

While banking and wallet apps can make budgeting easier, Glass stresses that increased importance of keeping smartphones secured and locked at all times if these apps are in use.  

“People can take advantage of your checking account or your identity by using smartphone applications, so it’s not just your physical credit cards.”

What to Do if You Become a Victim

The FTC recommends victims of fraud and identity theft first contact the credit reporting agencies and place a fraud alert or credit freeze in their name.

“The fraud alert means that the credit reporting agencies have to call you to verify that there’s authorization for the credit transaction before they authorize it,” says Schifferle.

After contacting the companies/businesses where the fraud occurred, consumers should file a complaint with the FTC as well as a police report. (http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/consumers/filing-a-report.html)

It’s critical that victims document each step of the fraud recovery process, as it can take months or years for the damage to be resolved, says Glass.

“It’s a long process and you have to document everything that you’ve done--who you spoke to, the date that you called, what’s the result--it’s such a nightmare but it’s definitely something that you have to do.”