NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
This holiday season, there's one gift you don't want to give -- your identity. But there are a slew of con artists trying to get just that.
"Shoppers are looking for bargains and are easier to fall prey to cons and scams," said Neal O'Farrell, founder of My Security Plan, a security firm specializing in cybercrime and identity theft.
Consumers should be particularly alert for "phishing" e-mails, the most common scam this season, accordong to O'Farrell.
Phishing attacks trick consumers into divulging sensitive financial information by imitating correspondence from legitimate businesses, say, Citibank or Amazon.com.
A recent survey by e-mail security firm MailFrontier forecast more than 750 million phishing e-mails will be sent between Nov. 26 and Dec. 24, a 30 percent increase from the previous month. Even that estimate could be low.
"Right now it is tracking higher than that," said Andrew Klein, anti-fraud product manager at MailFrontier.
Even worse, the scams are getting more sophisticated.
It had been that the only way you could be hurt by a phishing e-mail was to respond to it. Con artists are now deploying "phishing traps," that lure victims into clicking on an image (say, with something advertised as a coupon) that contains code able to monitor your keystrokes and look for account passwords.
Scammers are also putting a new spin on some old phishing schemes, O'Farrell says. Phony e-mail receipts and shipping notifications have been around for a while, but consumers are less alert during the holidays because they are dealing with and expecting to see more purchase confirmations.
E-mail greeting cards may also contain hidden viruses or worms programmed to snare confidential financial information. O'Farrell advises consumers to be wary of e-cards that contain an attachment, instead reading only those that link to a Web-based card.
Get that Grinch
You have about 60 days from the day you receive your credit card or banking statements to contest any unauthorized charges. Also, repairing the damage fraudulent charges does to your credit report can take several months, if not years.
On average, victims of identity theft spend 600 hours and $1,400 in out-of-pocket expenses cleaning out their records, according to the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego.
"Most identity theft is a crime of opportunity," O'Farrell noted. "Protecting yourself is doing a lot of little things, not one or two big things."
Some of those little things include:
- Ordering our credit report with all three major credit bureaus -- Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion-- at least once a year to check for errors,
- Storing your checkbook as well as your credit card and bank statements in a safe place,
- Using a paper shredder to destroy sensitive financial documents,
- Printing only your first initial and last name your checks. O'Farrell says it makes it harder for thieves to forge your signature,
- Dropping bills off at Post Office instead of depositing it in an unlocked mailbox,
- Sweeping your computer for spyware or viruses before doing any online banking,
- Using a professional data-erasing program to delete old files before you toss out your computer. O'Farrell recommends Data Cleaner and Cyberscrub.