Strong holiday shopping season opens floodgates for cybercriminals

This holiday shopping season was expected to be one of the strongest in years, potentially gifting cybercriminals with extra opportunities to steal consumers’ sensitive information.

“With all the increased spending that takes place over the holidays, it is a good idea to be even more vigilant,” Sarah Strauss, head of fraud at Capital One, told FOX Business.

Sales between Nov. 1 and Christmas Eve, as tracked by MasterCard, surged 5%, their largest percentage gain since 2011. Online shopping comprised a larger share of that activity, with both FedEx and UPS saying they had record shipping seasons.

While Strauss notes it is important to be wary of consumer fraud year-round, here is what consumers should watch for as the holiday spending season winds down.

What cybercriminals want from you

“Hackers are generally looking for any information that will allow them to get access to your credit card number, to your bank accounts, or to have enough information to be able to open a new account using your information,” Strauss said.

Hackers can gain access to this information using breaches and phishing, or fake emails and phone calls asking for sensitive information.

In some cases, criminals may already have this information. The Equifax (NYSE:EFX) breach, which occurred in mid-2017, compromised the personally identifiable information of more than 145 million Americans, including Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers and birth dates. Once information like Social Security numbers have been exposed, those consumers will always be at risk.

What to watch for

1. Unmade purchases

“The most obvious sign of fraud is seeing purchases on your debit or credit card account that you didn’t make,” Strauss said.

The standard way to keep tabs on purchases is by checking credit and debit card statements. However, Strauss noted that if individuals want immediate access to this information, sign up for instant purchase notifications with your bank.

2. An account opened in your name

Hackers who have accessed your information may also open a bank account under your name, Strauss said. Monitoring your credit and credit reports consistently can help you stay on top of this, she added, along with signing up for services at your bank that will notify you immediately when a credit inquiry is made under your name.

What to do if your information is compromised

“If you see suspicious activity on your card, contact the issuer immediately,” Strauss advised.

If you think cybercriminals may have stolen your identity, you should put a fraud alert on your credit reports, which requires lenders to touch base with you before undertaking any further actions under your name, she said. Credit freezes, which have been discussed heavily in the wake of the Equifax breach, can also be a useful tool.

Updating passwords and making sure you are using different, complex passwords for each of your accounts, is something most experts also recommend.