According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 17 million U.S. consumers experienced identity theft in 2014 — and more than 8 million of those cases involved fraudulent use of a credit card.
The holiday shopping season could pose a particular risk for identity theft simply from the sheer volume of transactions you’re likely to make.
To make matters worse, the holidays can often stretch your budget to its breaking point. But it’s possible to use credit cards safely and still stick to your spending budget.
To reduce your risk of identity theft and protect your budget, use these credit card tips to get ready for the holiday season.
1. Take stock of all your cards
Have you signed up for a department store credit card in the past year? Did you leave a credit card at work or in your car? Are the expiration dates current? Do you need to order a card replacement?
Take stock of all your cards before beginning your shopping spree, so you can plan appropriately.
2. Shop with the right credit cards
Do you know which of your credit cards offer cash back or rewards points, and what categories those rewards apply in? Now’s the time to make a list of your credit card limits, reward programs, and interest rates.
You don’t want to grab a card that doesn’t offer the most cash back for your purchases, or end up swiping a large purchase that puts you over a card’s limit.
3. Add authorized users
Before sitting down to tackle your Christmas shopping list, consider adding your spouse or other trusted family members as authorized users on your main credit card account.
Some rewards credit cards will offer additional cash back bonuses when you add authorized users to your account, and more users also mean more chances to earn points on all your purchases this season.
Carefully review your card’s terms and see if adding an authorized user could benefit you.
4. Sign up for credit alerts
If there’s fraudulent activity on your account, you want to know as quickly as possible. Sign up for credit alerts and your credit card company will warn you of any suspicious or unusual activity immediately.
You can receive these alerts in real-time via text message or email, and approve or deny them as needed. You’ll be able to shop with confidence knowing that any suspicious activity will be immediately brought to your attention.
5. Request an increased spending limit
Your credit utilization ratio (the amount of your credit card balances divided by your overall credit limit) has a large impact on your credit score. If you have too much debt and not much access to a good spending limit, your credit score will be negatively impacted.
In preparation of the extra spending that will inevitably happen during the holidays, request an increased credit limit. Call up customer service and ask about your options. Depending on your credit history, you may be able to increase your spending limit in as little as 10 minutes.
6. Look for special rewards deals
We all want to get the most for our money. This is even more important when buying gifts, because we want to get that perfect present while staying within our budgets.
Many of the big credit card companies have shopping deal sections that are part of the perks they offer customers. Take advantage of this benefit this holiday season to save money or earn additional rewards points for yourself.
For example, Discover Deals allows cardholders to earn additional cash back on purchases from specific stores. Similarly, Amex Offers helps cardmembers save even more on restaurants, groceries, and other commonly purchased items.
7. Check price matching programs
In addition to earning rewards for purchases at specific stores, you may be able to save even more with price matching perks.
For example, the Citi Price Rewind program searches the web for 60 days after you make a purchase. If they find the same item at a lower price, they’ll refund the difference. This could mean significant savings on big purchases like a new TV or computer.
What other price matching or price guarantee benefits do your credit cards offer? Review the fine print and know your options before hitting the “buy” button.
8. Verify return policies
Another credit card feature you’ll want to fully understand is the return protection and warranty coverage that comes with your card. Educate yourself on your card’s specific benefits before swiping.
A return protection policy could be beneficial if the store is unable to accept an unwanted item in exchange for a refund or store credit. Similarly, an extended warranty coverage can add an additional year onto the manufacturer’s original warranty if your item breaks or needs repair.
9. Consider promotional financing offers
If you plan to make larger purchases for family and friends, consider taking advantage of promotional financing offers on new cards.
For example, if a credit card offers 0% interest for 12 to 18 months, you could pay for big purchases with that card and repay the cost over several months — interest-free.
Read the offer’s fine print and be sure you can pay off the purchase in the allotted timeframe, otherwise you risk paying big interest fees for that fancy gift. Learn more about comparing credit card offers here.
10. Verify your credit report
A few weeks after you’ve finished your holiday shopping, verifying your credit report is an important step. What does your history of credit look like? Are you behind on any payments? Is there incorrect information that needs to be fixed?
With so many transactions coming through over the holiday seasons, credit card companies are more likely to overlook mistakes and erroneous data. Review your credit report for inconsistencies, errors, and any information that shouldn’t be there.
As you prep for the holiday shopping season, use these credit cards tips to safely swipe your card and stay on budget. Your family will be grateful for their gifts, but you’ll be happy with your budget all season long.
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