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Caught in Shopping Web

Each year the holiday season seems to kick into gear a little earlier than the previous year.

    This year, the turkeys and pumpkin pies were barely out of the oven before songs like “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” could be heard in stores around the Santa Clarita Valley.

    And while some early birds hit the malls the moment the Thanksgiving dishes were done, many shoppers wait until the last minute to brave the holiday retail market.

    In fact, this weekend and the ensuing days leading up to Dec. 25 are traditionally the busiest days of the year for retailers.

    Whether in line or online, this additional hustle and bustle can pose some real threats to careless shoppers — threats like identity theft and computer fraud.

    “Identity theft is one of the fastest growing, if not the fastest growing, white-collar crime in the country,” said Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president and consumer spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute. “Criminals tend to be opportunistic and during this time of year people are a little more distracted and tend to use their credit cards more, so it can be a bad situation.”

    Part of the problem is that the holiday season, with its expanded hours and increased spending, provides criminals with more opportunities to steal identities. Tired shoppers and crowded stores create the perfect environment for thieves bent on stealing credit cards and other financial information.

    “It’s easy to become less guarded about personal information such as credit cards, personal checks, driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers,” Salvatore said.

    This extends to online shopping as well.

    According to a report from CI Host, this year’s holiday period is predicted to generate more online sales than ever before, up as much as 27 percent from last year.

    Salvatore explained that as a society, Americans are becoming more technological, and the risks of identity theft and computer fraud are increasing accordingly.

    Online consumers will be a juicy target for cyber criminals using techniques called “phishing” and “pharming” to steal their identities and cash, said Paul Henry, a security expert from CyberGuard Corporation.

    Phishers rely on e-mails that entice consumers to “click here” on an embedded link within the e-mail directing the recipient to an illegitimate “copy cat” Web site that looks identical to the real thing.

    Many users unknowingly divulge their most personal financial information on these Web sites: PINs, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, usernames and passwords.

    Pharming is similar, and while it requires a more sophisticated cyber criminal, it is growing rapidly.

    According to a report from the Anti-Phishing Working Group, these types of campaigns have increased some 127 percent since October 2004.

    Similarly, the Federal Trade Commission reports that more than 27 million Americans have been the victim of identity theft in the last five years, costing consumers more than $5 billion in out-of-pocket expenses.

For the whole story, visit The Signal's website.