This is indeed my favorite time of the year! Spending quality time with family and friends, holding out hope that my beloved Dallas Cowboys won’t once again implode in December, and gearing up for another Christmas shopping season are just a few of the many activities that make this season so wonderful. While each of these are quite enjoyable in their own respect, one of these warrants special consideration this holiday season. As many Americans increasingly decide to do their holiday shopping online as opposed to in the store, special precautions need to be taken in order to protect oneself from identity theft. In 2012 alone, there were 12.6 million cases of identity theft reported, according to the 2012 Javelin Strategy & Research Report. That number has increased by 1 million cases since 2011, and is expected to continue to rise in 2013. While the numbers are certainly staggering, there are several steps we can take to limit our exposure to such an event.

Be Aware

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it might just be the most important step in preventing identity theft. Be aware of the tactics identity thieves use and be careful with how freely you give out your personal information. Pay attention to the websites you visit and the links you click on. Make it a best practice to go directly to a website when shopping online. Email and social media sites are great for directing you to the best deals, but the links provided are not always guaranteed to be protected. If the link seems suspicious or has a URL that you do not recognize, do not click on it. Links can sometimes contain a virus or direct you to a phony website intended to trick you into giving them your personal information. One tip to ensure your information is safe: never enter personal information on a website that does not start with https. The ‘s’ means that the page is secure, which you can read more about here.

Another tactic that identity thieves have been known to use, is to give you a call and pose as the Government, the IRS, or your bank. They may explain some issue and state that they need your personal information to fix the matter. If you are not expecting this call or it seems fishy, do not give them your information! Hang up, go to their website to find a valid contact number, and give them a call and explain the call you just received. If they really did need some information from you, you can then give it to them over the phone, but it is better to take the extra effort than risk having your personal information stolen!

Be Proactive

In addition to being aware of the tactics identity thieves use and best practices to follow, there are a few ways in which you can proactively limit your exposure to becoming a victim of identity theft.

Identity theft protection services can be a very helpful tool in the fight against identity theft. They actively monitor your credit and report any suspicious activity. One service in particular, AllClearID, will contact you each time your credit is accessed and an account is being opened in your name, and help you fix the issue if you were not the one to open it. While this is a service you pay for, they do also offer a free service that will help you restore your credit after it has been compromised. You can see the difference between the AllClearID PRO and the AllClearID Free services here.

A step further in proactively protecting your credit, is the use of a credit freeze. Clark Howard is a big proponent of the credit freeze, in which you can read about in more detail here. In essence, you put a freeze on your credit at each of the 3 credit bureaus, eliminating the ability for anyone to open a new line of credit in your name. You are still free to use any credit cards or line of credit currently open, but not allowed to open anything new. If you do need to open a new line of credit, for example buying a car or switching cable companies, you would need to go to each of the 3 bureaus and request they “unfreeze” of your credit.

Another practical way you can aid in the prevention of identity theft is to shred anything with personal information that you do not need. Identity thieves have been known to dumpster dive, looking for any information they can find. For the information that you do need to keep, lock it away in a secure space that only you have access to. An unfortunate statistic that was reported in the 2012 Javelin Strategy & Research Report is that 12% of those defrauded knew the individual who stole their information personally.

Be Tenacious

Unfortunately, if you do find yourself in a situation in which your identity has been compromised, you need to act quickly in order to limit the potential damage that could occur. Immediately call your bank, credit card companies, financial advisor, etc. to let them know your credit has been compromised. Call the 3 credit bureaus and have them place a fraud alert on your credit reports. File an Identity Theft Report with the FTC, and if need be, file a police report with your local police agency. Often times a police report is needed to prove you are not liable for purchases made using your stolen credit information.

Enjoy Yourself

Identity theft is real and should be taken very seriously, but don’t let it overtake you with fear. Take the proper steps to protect yourself, but enjoy yourself this time of year as you spend time with loved ones. Reflect on what you have to be thankful for, how you can improve from this year to next, and prepare for what New Year’s resolutions you would like to break in the coming months.