As residents across East Tennessee visit local retailers and shop online for niche Christmas presents this holiday season, law enforcement and financial officials say customers can take some common sense steps to stay safe from cases of theft and fraud.
John Evans, manager at American Trust Bank of East Tennessee, said that while Amazon.com and most major department store websites offer secure payment portals for Christmas shopping, other sites that do not have one of the two standard web address suffixes should be avoided.
“One of the best things that you can do is always pay through a trusted site,” Evans said. “You don’t ever need to give any of your information that’s not a site that’s not a dotcom or not a dotnet. You can look at the Internet address, and it if doesn’t have dotcom or dotnet on the end, if it has some off-structure, then you don’t need to fool with it.”
Another option for paying for items online would be to use a trusted third-party site like PayPal, he said.
“What most people are doing these days is paying for online stuff through PayPal or a like entity because it’s much more secure,” Evans said.
Looking for ‘edge’
Steve Hurst, regional president at United Community Bank, said customers can also identify trusted retailers by looking for an icon in the browser that indicates the presence of a Secure Sockets Layer certificate.
“When you do online purchases this time of year make sure that you’re using a secure website, and most of those in the right hand corner will have a picture of a lock that tells you that’s a secure website.”
In addition to being aware of website security while shopping, customers should also be on the lookout for other potential information breaches.
“A lot of times it would be phishing, where customers get unsolicited email or phone calls asking for personal information, and that’s something you should never give out either, one of those,” Hurst said. “... If they get your Social Security number, that opens a lot of doors to get information on you.”
He also said passwords for online services like banking and credit card account management should be changed about once a month to prevent hackers from being able to access sensitive information. Bank customers should regularly track their purchases to check for potential fraudulent activity.
“Actually because of online banking you can look every day and see what your transactions are, but again … you should always balance any financial statements you get,” Hurst said. “Verify receipts against what shows up on your statements.”
Criminals who are looking to take advantage of shoppers during the holiday season and at other times throughout the year are aware that some people only glance at their bank statements and are not always consistent about balancing their checking accounts, he said.
“I think crooks know that, so they’re looking for any way that they can get an edge,” Hurst said.
‘Crimes of opportunity’
While criminals are able to access sensitive information through email scams and insecure websites, customers should also be aware of more traditional forms of theft and fraud during the holiday season, according to law enforcement officials.
Lenoir City Police Chief Don White said officers typically see an increase in shoplifting and petty theft from the start of the shopping season through early January. He said Walmart and the two largest grocers in Lenoir City, Ingles and Food City, are the most frequent targets of theft during the holidays.
In residential areas, he said thefts typically don’t occur in any one particular neighborhood more than others, noting that one year, the Chestnut Ridge and Allenbrook areas were “hit hard” by a string of thefts, and at another time, a wave of car burglaries occurred in the Harrison Road community.
“We normally track it back to an individual that lived within a one-mile radius from where that theft occurred,” White said.
For those who live in remote neighborhoods in the city, White suggested residents make alternative arrangements for receiving Christmas presents from online retailers.
“Try to either ship to a neighbor or a family member that will be home, especially for very expensive items, and if they know that they’re not going to be back at the residence until late in the evening … have it prearranged for somebody to go pick those items up” at the local UPS or FedEx office.
He said the likelihood of a theft occurring increases the longer a package sits outside on the porch or patio. “If they don’t have cameras on their property, it’s a very, very difficult crime to solve on our end,” White said.
Jimmy Davis, Loudon County Sheriff’s assistant chief deputy, said law enforcement officials also see a lot of “crimes of opportunity” cases this time of year, as residents mistakenly leave their cars unlocked at Christmas parties and other holiday gatherings or leave their garage doors open when they are not at home. “They need to take their valuables out of their car and lock their car at big gatherings like that,” Davis said, noting that residents should also not tip off criminals that a home might be vacant. “Keep it to where people don’t see obvious signs that nobody’s home,” he said.
White said Lenoir City Police Department will increase patrols through Jan. 3 in residential areas and in the business corridor along Highway 321.
Davis said the Sheriff’s Office will also ramp up its presence in the community through the holiday season, as officers continue to be on the lookout for potential offenses and public safety concerns.
“We try to hit our main roads and some of our back roads for DUI (driving under the influence) issues and traffic safety,” Davis said, adding that residents can do a lot to prevent crimes in their neighborhoods just by being aware of any suspicious activity.
“We up our patrol patterns to get those guys, hopefully,” Davis said.