4 tips to outwit identity thieves this holiday season

When it comes to financial security, It's better to use credit cards than debit cards when buying online.

Heading into what's universally described as the busiest online shopping day of the year, Cyber Monday was expected to be one for the record books. And by the latest estimates, it lived up to its billing.

The e-commerce shopping blitz resulted in a combined $3 billion of online sales for retailers on the first weekday after Thanksgiving, according to newly released numbers crunched by analytics company comScore. That's a 12% increase from last year.

Gian Fulgoni, comScore Chairman Emeritus, noted that the Internet sales haul shattered records.

"Cyber Monday maintained its reputation as the most important online spending day of year, exceeding $3 billion in total digital spending and once again becoming the heaviest online spending day of all-time," Fulgoni said. "Despite some talk of Cyber Monday declining in importance, the day's historical highs and continued strong growth rates confirm it is still a hugely important shopping event."

Consumers less worried about ID theft

Because so many people take advantage of online shopping, identity thieves lie in wait. Despite consumers' understanding of this risk – and the fact that data breaches are more common today than they used to be – it may come as a surprise that Americans are less concerned with the chances of being compromised. For example, in a survey performed by credit agency TransUnion, nearly two-thirds of respondents – 63% – last year said online financial security was something that concerned them. When the same poll was done earlier this year, just 52% said the same.

Ken Chaplin, TransUnion Senior Vice President, pointed out that just as security measures have strengthened, hackers are adapting. This leaves buyers vulnerable to an attack should they let their guard down.

"The drop in consumer fear of security breaches is not reflective of the security environment today," Chaplin emphasized. "Data breaches are inevitable and most consumers are vulnerable to identity theft, so it's crucial that they remain vigilant and take steps to mitigate their risk, especially during the holidays."

What's encouraging, Chaplin mentioned, is that consumers are assuming more personal accountability for their financial security. He referenced from the survey that when respondents were asked who was the most responsible party for data protection, 36% cited the consumer. Approximately 25% said the duty fell on credit card companies, and 17% felt it was the retailers' fault.

Identity theft experts say it's a shared responsibility, but there are several things that consumers can do to protect themselves. The following are several ways to ensure the only one interacting with online financial data is you:

Set up a strong password

Consumers will often sacrifice ease of use for security when setting up passwords, whether it's using the same one for multiple accounts or generic types like "password" or "123456." Instead, mix up the characters used so that they're less "hackable." A good rule of thumb is to have at least one letter, number, and symbol. Case-sensitive passwords are also highly recommended, using both uppercase letters and lowercase.

Surf on secured channels

Wi-Fi has made Internet access available almost everywhere. However, networks that aren't secured are vulnerable to hacking attempts. If you're able to access a Wi-Fi network without a password, that's an indication that it's not secured. Avoid using it, if at all possible.

Do your homework on retailer websites

There are literally millions of online portals to buy from, many of which offer merchandise for rock-bottom prices. Prior to checking out or entering your personal account information, take a look at the address bar to see if security features are there. If there's a padlock symbol – or an "s" after "http," that's a good sign. Otherwise, avoiding using the site, or inquire about what security measures have been implemented.

Use credit card rather than debit card

Credit card companies have established security protocols that allow transactions to be scuttled if they elicit red flags, such as purchases that are highly unusual. Credit companies will often inform buyers of the activity for verification purposes. Debit cards, on the other hand, don't have the same protections in place and can be harder to put a freeze on if the account has been compromised.

For more information on how to stay financially safe this holiday season, visit TransUnion's website.