According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) most recent findings, nearly 16.6 million Americans (or 7 percent of those age 16 or older) are victims of identity theft. They’ve either experienced the unauthorized use or attempted use of an existing account, of personal information to open a new account, or the misuse of personal information for a fraudulent purpose.
BJS number crunchers also found those who had their personal information used to open a new account or for other fraudulent purposes, were more likely to experience severe financial and credit issues than victims of fraud on an existing account. Data also shows that they are more likely to develop relationship problems and severe emotional distress.
Having your identity stolen can be costly. Total financial losses stemming from identity theft are estimated at upwards of $50 billion a year. About 14% of identity theft victims experience some out-of-pocket losses of their hard earned money. Of these victims, about half suffered losses of more than $100.
Victims suffer not only financial losses, but also pay with time, too. Twenty percent of identity theft victims who were able to resolve any associated problems spent a month or more doing so.
But the average American isn’t the only one at risk for identity theft. The world’s most famous jolly old elf, St. Nick himself is perhaps the jolliest and easiest target of all.
Experts say Santa makes several key mistakes that should land him on the naughty list for not protecting his financial information. And to make sure you don’t follow in his snowy footprints, here’s a look at how Santa gets it wrong.
His house is bustling
If Santa is like most Americans, he probably keeps bills, financial statements, pay stubs and passwords to accounts on his office desk, in his home office, and maybe on his kitchen counter. And with all those worker elves, deliveries of toy-making supplies and mail, and reindeer trainers, Santa has a lot of people in and out of his house. And all that traffic can mean trouble for Santa’s identity.
Santa trusts his elves, and while that eases his stress level when he’s busy checking his list twice and doesn’t have time to watch over toy production, it also makes him vulnerable. “Santa may not be aware that a majority of identity theft is “friendly identity theft” and the victim personally knows the criminal,” says Denis G. Kelly, President IDCuffs.com, an identity protection service. “Those with a relationship with a potential victim typically know considerable personally identifying information. And with just a piece or two more of the identity puzzle, they are off to the races.”
Mail carriers, delivery personnel and others also put Santa’s identity at risk. The more people come and go in and around a home, the greater the likelihood that one of those people is less than honest, says Neal O’Farrell, the nation’s Number 1 Consumer Security Advocate and a nationally respected expert who has been fighting cybercrime and identity theft around the world for thirty years. “Around the holidays it’s tempting to steal some personal information or make a copy of a credit card number.”
And even though it’s hard to imagine any elf would risk landing on Santa’s naughty list, he may have a bad one or two among the thousands he employs. So Santa needs to recognize even elven family members may try to get their hands on his personal information to charge up a huge snow pile of debt.
And don’t forget the Elves’ identity, either. It’s important to protect their personnel files too so they don’t fall victim to nefarious imposter elves that sneak into Santa’s workshop.
Anyone—elven or otherwise—should keep all documents with personal information secure in a locked file cabinet or safe that is away from prying eyes to protect from low-tech, in-home identity thieves. “It sounds obvious, but people need to realize they should never—ever—leave any personal information or documentation in public places in their home. This includes obvious documentation such as your driver’s license, passport, and social security card, but it also includes your phone bill, gas bill, and even any junk mail,” says Kelly.
Gather all that information and hide it in a safe zone in your home. Choose a place that’s out of eyesight but isn’t an obvious hiding spot (like a jewelry box). Some other safe hiding spots include:
Book your info. Tuck credit cards, passports and other important information in your favorite book. You can use just one book or scatter info in a few as long as you remember what titles you used as a hiding spot. Keep the book on the highest shelf of a bookcase to avoid kids or visitors from accidentally pulling it off the shelf.
Launder your finances. Fill an empty laundry detergent bottle with sand or rocks to prevent it from tipping over and tape an envelope with financial information to the back of the bottle. Stash that on your laundry room shelf and prying eyes will never suspect the cleaner is really a mock safe. You can also purchase faux cans that resemble cleaning products but are actually document storage devices.
And O’Farrell says if there are paperwork and other documents you rarely use, hide that in the darkest, most cobwebby corner of your attic. “Little chance a thief will venture that far to find your information.”
He logs a lot of frequent flier miles
Since he travels around the world, Santa probably carries a lot of different forms of currency—just in case he wants to pick Mrs. Claus up an exotic present from a foreign land. But experts say traveling with a stuffed wallet makes Santa a prime target for identity thieves.
Santa needs to travel a little lighter. A credit card and a driver’s license are all he should carry. They’re easy to carry and hide, hard for thieves to spot and steal, and minimize the worry and risk if stolen. And leave the debit card at home. If it’s compromised, thieves could empty Santa’s bank account almost instantly, and how would he pay the elves that month?
“Everyone, including Santa, should look at their wallet or purse to see what information and documentation they don’t need with them at all times that in the wrong hands could lead to identity theft,” says Steven J.J. Weisman, Esq., an identity theft attorney in Amherst, MA. “This includes additional credit cards, health insurance cards and, of course, Santa’s Social Security card.”
And even though Santa may be ageless, the jolly old elf has probably reached at least the age of 65, which means he most likely has a Medicare card. Medicare uses a person’s Social Security number as their Medicare card ID number, which puts Medicare recipients at increased danger of identity theft. Weisman suggests leaving that at home whenever possible.
Instead of having to remember to empty and refill his wallet (for times when he needs certain pieces of personal documentation), Santa should consider the 2-wallet method. He should use one that contains his driver’s licenses, insurance card (not Medicare if applicable), a small amount of cash and one credit card for day-to-day things (like running out for reindeer food or when he’s shopping at the mall for a present for Mrs. Claus). The other should contain items like a Medicare card and other items he uses now and then like when he goes for his annual physical. And when he’s not using it, this second wallet should be kept in his home’s safe zone.
Like any traveler, Santa should also have a photocopy of everything in his wallet stored in his safe zone at home or digitized and uploaded to his email, says Robert Siciliano, a certified security instructor for numerous industry associations.
He lets his whereabouts be known via the internet
In order for anxious little girls and boys to know when it’s time to go to bed, Santa trackers help everyone around the world keep tabs on his travels. But Kelly says those Santa trackers are criminal beacons. It leaves him at risk because the Santa tracker indicates when he is not at the North Pole. This informs the criminals that it is a good time to get on their sleds and jump down his unprotected chimney. AND, the theft can include much more than his identity–possibly gifts for children that he has already begun to acquire for next year.
Santa is in quite a jam in this instance as the entire world knows he leaves his house on Christmas Eve. So he has to rely on home security systems and plans he’s put in place, like safeguarding his financial valuables in safe spots in his house.
But his elves can keep their identities safe by not including any travel plans—even if it’s just to the mall or grandma’s house for a day trip—in their Facebook status updates or posts, tweets or other social networking until AFTER they’re home from their vacation. O’Farrell says buttoning your lip online is one of the easiest ways to reduce the risk that spirited Scrooges will steal your personal information from your home while you’re away.
He’s merry and bright…at the mall
From time to time Santa likes to pop into the mall…how else can he check in on all those helpers taking pictures with kids? And because holiday shopping is done in an environment that’s a mix of chaos and crowds with tinsel and carols, Santa might let his guard down amidst all of the hustle and bustle.
And Grinchy identity thieves will try to take Santa’s personal information home to their own workshops to pay for a few lights (and other things) they want for their own tree. “They’ll look for people who are too busy to spot the warning signs, who are not careful with their wallet or purse, and who too easily click on scam emails that pretend to be receipted for purchases or notifications of deliveries,” says O’Farrell. “And people want to be more trusting at this special time of year which can make them vulnerable to charity and giving scams.”
Kelly says if Santa uses insecure public internet connections to track his naughty or nice list while on his sleigh or at the mall, he’s increasing the likelihood that criminals can access his computer and commit identity theft.
“Most people are too carefree with our devices leaving them about, not password protected,” cautions Siciliano. Santa and the elves should install a lock, as well as locate and wipe software on all portable devices such as laptops, mobiles, and tablets.
And he should keep in mind that the holidays are a time of year when pickpockets are everywhere. Female elves and Santa’s helpers should shorten the strap on their purses and men should carry wallets in their front pockets.
And don’t go drunk shopping. Drinking too much eggnog can make it harder to pay attention to your surroundings and increase the odds you’ll get run over by a reindeer and lose your identity to thieves. “It is always necessary to pay attention, especially during the Christmas season,” says O’Farrell.
Frequent contributor of health and caregiving, personal finance, mortgage, and insurance articles, as well as celebrity interviews and Q&As to MSN, Realtor.com, Credit Sesame, Fortune, USA Today, Women’s Health, Family Circle, Essence, Lifescript, Health Monitor Network, and more. Gina’s work has been featured on the covers of numerous titles including Glamour, Live Happy, Neurology Now, and many other national and international publications.