CHARLESTON – As the holiday season approaches, it becomes increasingly important for consumers to exercise caution to protect financial information.

Doing so can keep a cheerful time of year from turning into a financial nightmare.

Sensitive information can be obtained improperly in various ways, most often through scams involving unsolicited phone calls or emails, online shopping and hacking.

Scammers can use information — including full names, addresses, Social Security numbers, birthdates, driver’s license numbers, bank account numbers and credit card numbers — to wreak financial havoc.

Consumers should be wary if someone calls and asks for personal information. Often, the caller will impersonate someone from a financial institution or government agency and tell the consumer they owe money. Scammers will also sometimes strike through emails requesting personal information by pretending to be someone they are not.

Online shopping offers convenience, but may also open the door for those who would steal personal information. Disreputable sites may offer goods at prices that are too good to be true, but could end up costing shoppers much more if their financial information is stolen.

Especially around the holidays, phishing scams often appear in the form of online coupons. Clicking the link on a digital coupon may redirect users to another, non-secure site.

In September, we learned of a massive data breach affecting an estimated 145.5 million consumers. It took place when hackers obtained sensitive information by targeting Equifax, one of the nation’s three major credit bureau monitoring agencies. More than 730,000 West Virginians were potentially impacted by the breach.

The action of my office and those of other state attorneys general led to an extended deadline to enroll for free credit reports and identity theft protection offered by Equifax. We’re also very involved in other matters pertaining to the Equifax breach, but the chance that hackers may now possess sensitive data increases the threat of identity theft for those impacted.

In the wake of this event — and in other instances when identity theft could happen — it is more important than ever for consumers to be aware of the risks and protect their information from those who wish to use it unlawfully.

Consumer protection must begin with the individual.

There are many warning signs to alert consumers of potential identity theft. Unexplained withdrawals from bank accounts, unfamiliar accounts or charges on credit reports and receiving bills from medical providers for services a consumer didn’t use can all indicate that personal identifiable information has been compromised.

Consumers also should carefully review their account statements. This can aid in spotting potential identity theft. Any transactions not initiated by the account holder should be reported to the financial institution as quickly as possible. Once a loss or unauthorized use of an ATM or debit card is reported, federal law dictates consumers cannot be held liable for unofficial transfers of more than $50 thereafter.

Closely monitoring credit reports is another way to discover identity theft.

Online shoppers also should use reputable websites and look for “https” at checkout as the “s” denotes a secure connection.

Don’t sacrifice security for a good deal.      

Through consumer education and careful guarding of personal financial information, holiday shopping can be a safe and enjoyable activity.

Morrisey is the Attorney General of West Virginia.

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