As Meredith Yager's sister finished last-minute holiday shopping last year on Yager's computer, a dialogue box popped up.
The message asked her to update her security settings.
"It didn't look right, and I got suspicious," said Yager, a staff specialist for Duke Cancer Institute Development. She shut down her computer and took it to Best Buy for a checkup. A technician confirmed that clicking on the link would have activated a virus that collects passwords and bank account numbers.
Incidents of identity theft increased 13 percent last year, according to an annual Identity Fraud Survey by Javelin Research. Thieves often use the hustle and bustle of the holiday season to fleece unsuspecting victims of credit card and bank data. With that information, they can withdraw money from accounts, open unauthorized bank loans and run up credit card debts.
"The key to prevention is to be vigilant about your own behavior," said Richard Biever, Duke University's chief information security officer. "There are steps to take to make life more difficult for thieves."
Here are five tips to help you keep your identity safe this holiday season:
Check that link
Before making a purchase online or providing personal information like a birthdate or account number, check where an Internet link takes you. Biever suggested hovering a mouse over a link to see what URL appears. "Scammers are becoming adept at obfuscating links by creating a long URL that starts with a legitimate business name but actually sends you to a different website," he said. "If the URL looks odd, call the company or try finding the page you want from the home page of the bank or business. If you can't find it, the original link may have been a scam."
Protect yourself from porch pirates
More online shopping means more packages delivered to doorsteps. "There are people who follow the FedEx and UPS vans around and steal what is left on the doorstep," said Eric Hester, a crime prevention officer for the Duke University Police Department. "By requiring the package to be signed for, you are protecting both your merchandise and your receipts from these porch pirates."
Secure offline information
According to the Javelin Research survey, many identity thieves gain information by stealing wallets, checkbooks, credit cards or other physical documents. Hester suggested carrying a wallet in a pocket, rather than a snatchable bag, and that everyone keep wallets, phones, computers and other valuables out of sight in cars and stowed from view in the office and at home.
Fight fraud with technology
Computer firewalls, anti-virus protection, social media security settings and strong passwords can help protect digital information. "And don't forget to use password security on your smartphone," Biever said. "It can have a goldmine of information on it."
Check bank and credit card statements each month to ferret out suspicious purchases, and request a free credit report at least twice a year. "A credit report will tell you if someone has opened a credit card or bank account in your name that you are otherwise unaware of," said Scottie Dowdy, a financial guidance counselor at the Duke Credit Union. She teaches a Credit Union seminar on "Fighting Back Against Identity Theft."
Yager, the staff specialist, said that following the close call with the phishing attempt on her computer last year, she attended the Credit Union's seminar to learn how to identify and respond to threats.
"I keep the pamphlet they handed out about what to do if your information has been put at risk right by my computer," she said. "Before the session, I would have had no clue where to turn."