In the aftermath of massive credit and debit card data breaches at retailers including Home Depot and Target, many consumers are wondering about the best ways to keep their financial accounts out of the hands of criminals.

According to Jean Chatzky, financial editor of NBC’s Today Show, and author of Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security, there are a number of ways to protect your accounts. With the holiday season approaching, we asked Chatzky for tips on how Boomeon readers can ensure their family’s financial data isn’t compromised.

Check Your Account Statements Regularly – “Consumers need to get in the habit of regularly checking any bank accounts that are linked to debit cards, and their credit card statements, for suspicious activity,” Chatzky says. “Be proactive and check your accounts online at least twice a month rather than waiting for statements to be mailed to you. This way, if you see a discrepancy, you can immediately report the unusual transaction to your bank, and minimize the damage that thieves can do.”

Chatzky also recommends pulling your credit reports at least once a year to verify all of your account information and to ensure you aren’t the victim of identity theft. “You can access your credit reports from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—for free each year,” Chatzky says.  “To request your free credit report, go to annualcreditreport.com. While you can get all three reports at once, I space them out and get one every four months. I also recommend Lifelock to help safeguard your finances and credit.”

Use Discretion When Shopping Online – There are many advantages to shopping online including not having to search for parking or fighting long lines at the mall, but before you start shopping online, make sure your transactions are secure.

 “It’s important to make sure the website you’re shopping on is legitimate and secure,” Chatzky says.  “The site should display a closed padlock on your web browser’s address bar or a URL address that begins with https (instead of just http). This indicates the purchase is encrypted or secured. “ 

Chatzky also recommends using Paypal or a credit card, rather than a debit card when shopping online. “If someone steals your identity it’s better that they not have access directly to your bank account,” she says.

Change Your Password Frequently – Whether you’re shopping or banking online, Chatzky recommends changing your passwords regularly. 

“Make sure you have a unique and diverse password using lower case letters and numbers for all of your accounts on the Internet,” Chatzky says. “Don’t repeat passwords between accounts, because if your account is hacked, you don’t want thieves to be able to access your personal information through different accounts as well.”

One alternative to remembering to change your passwords all of the time is to consider using a password managing system such as roboform.com or lastpass.com, which are free services that remember your passwords for you.

Keep Your Parents Safe – Sadly, many seniors find themselves the target of financial thieves. People 60 years and older made up 26% of all fraud complaints tracked by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012, the highest of any age group. In 2008, the level was just 10%, the lowest of any adult age group.

“Many Boomers also find themselves in the position of helping their aging parents to manage their finances, especially when their parents begin to show signs of cognitive decline,” Chatzky says. “Have your parents put you or one of your siblings on their accounts, and have copies of their financial statement sent to you so that you can help them pay bills and ensure their accounts haven’t been compromised.”

Since seniors are often the targets of “phishing” schemes, (phone or mail scams designed to trick people into disclosing their personal or financial information for the purpose of financial fraud or identity theft), Chatzky also recommends emphasizing to your elderly parents the importance of never giving out personal information over the phone or Internet.

“Banks will never send you an e-mail asking you to update your Social Security or account information,” Chatzky says. 

If you suspect your parent may be susceptible to phishing offers, direct them to the Federal Trade Commissions’ website, ftc.gov, where you can show them examples of some of the latest reported financial schemes. 

Photo Credit: Brad Trent