Protect Yourself from Identity Theft This Holiday Season

Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes, and unfortunately, identity thieves never take a holiday. In fact, since they often seize the opportunity to steal their victim's identities during purchases and travel, the holiday season is one of their busiest times of the year.

Nothing takes the joy out of the season faster than being the victim of identity theft, which can empty your bank account, max out your credit cards and wreak general havoc on your finances. But there are ways to protect yourself from identity thieves ? during the holidays and all year long. Here are a few tips that may help:

Be careful when you download music: It's tempting to download holiday music from free sites. But some free music sites install programs on your computer that allow others to view the contents of your hard drive, including documents that contain your Social Security number or bank account information. Make sure you obtain your digital music from a reputable source.

Keep an eye on the kids: If you have children who are home during the holidays, make sure you are aware of what they are doing online. Also make sure the kids know not to divulge personal information to strangers. Identity thieves show up on popular social networking sites like MySpace to manipulate children into giving up personal information.

Be safe when you travel: Airports and train stations are a goldmine of information for identity thieves. Ticket receipts, stubs and information on luggage tags can be stolen and used to create a fake identity. Because more people travel during the holidays, identity thieves are working overtime at transportation hubs.

Don't fall for phishing: "Phishing" is an online scam designed to trick unwary net shoppers or surfers into giving up vital information. A common ploy is for a thief to impersonate a reputable site like eBay and send an email that asks you to "update" bank account information. Don't fall for it, and don't click any links in the email. If you want to check on your eBay account, sign in to the site and then check.

Make sure you make online purchases from secure sites only. When you are checking out online, check for the lock icon on your browser so that you know you're dealing with a secure server.

Watch your credit cards. It's possible for a cashier or server to scan your credit card through a device that stores the card's information for fraudulent use. If possible, keep your eyes on your card throughout the transaction.

Not only is identity theft expensive, it's a real hassle to straighten out once you detect the occurrence of fraud. In fact, some economists estimate it can take up to 500 hours to restore credit and get finances in order after an identity theft. You don't want to spend your holidays on the phone with credit bureaus and credit card companies, so take the steps you can to protect yourself.