10 Ways to a Financially Safe Holiday

12/05/2011 9:26 am EST

Focus: MONEY MANAGEMENT

Terry Savage

Author, The Savage Truth on Money

It’s the holiday shopping season, a time when banks and other pickpockets hope you’re concentrating more on spending than on safeguarding your money, writes MoneyShow.com personal finance expert Terry Savage.

Bank fees are on the rise again, especially since consumers won the protest against monthly charges for access to their own money in the form of debit-card fees. Now, banks are still trying to figure out how to make up for the money they no longer getting on each debit-card transaction, ever since Congress cut and capped transaction fees.

Banks must give 30 day advance notice of changes to your checking account terms (less than the 46 days advance warning required of credit-card changes). They’re trying to start the new year with new fees and terms. So if you get one of those “fine print” form letters from your bank—here are some of the things you should be looking for:

  • Monthly Checking Account Fees, Higher Minimums—Say goodbye to free checking. Banks are instituting monthly fees—especially if you don’t keep a substantial balance in your checking account, in some cases at least $5,000.
  • Online Bill-Payment Fees—Online bill payment used to be free. After all, it saves banks the trouble of processing paper checks. But more and more banks are requiring minimum balances, or a combination of other assets, such as CDs and IRAs. Otherwise you’ll pay a monthly fee for online bill payment.
  • Fees for Wire Transfers, Certified Checks—Some services, such as wire transfers or certified checks, used to be provided free. Now banks are even charging fees for wire transfers that bring money into your account!
  • Higher ATM Fees—Many banks have increased the fees they charge if you use another bank’s ATM.

So pay close attention to the fine print when you get your statement, or the little brochure describing “changes to your account terms.”

You could also look around for a community bank or credit union that might have far lower fees. The only problem is that they probably have fewer and less convenient ATMs. So make sure they will reimburse any fees charged if you use an ATM from another bank.

NEXT: Guard Your Wallet

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Guard Your Wallet
The first line of defense is your own wallet or purse. After all, the holiday season is also pickpocket season!

Take a look at all the stuff you’re carrying around in your wallet. Do you need all of it? Sort out what you do need, and leave other things like your Social Security card safely at home.

Then make a list of what’s in your wallet—including account numbers, plus the toll-free numbers to call if your wallet is stolen.

Here’s what should be on the list—and it’s more than credit cards:

  • Credit cards
  • Health insurance
  • Auto insurance
  • Membership cards
  • Bus or transit pass
  • Office keycard for entry

If you have a list at home of what’s at risk in your wallet—and who to call if it is stolen—you can avoid some panicky moments.

Shop Safely Online
First, never shop—or do any financial transaction—on an unsecure WiFi connection, such as at a coffee shop or on a college campus. It’s far too easy for others to track your moves and then sign in later using your ID.

Use only secure corporate Web sites to shop. If the site uses “https”—not just “http” in the web browser line, it indicates a higher level of security for your transaction information.

Never send credit-card information by e-mail.Even if you’re sending that kind of information to a friend, it can be intercepted and misused if your friend opens the e-mail on a smartphone e-mail program that is not secure.

Check your credit-card balances online every day during the shopping season—and be alert to any unauthorized charges.

Use your credit card, not your debit card, for shopping online. Any fraudulent use of your Visa or MasterCard is 100% protected, as is debit-card fraud. But fraud on your debit card could drain your bank account—and it could take a while to get your money back. [Also, the legal protections for credit-card purchases are usually much stronger than for debit cards—Editor.]

These tips should help you have a financially safe holiday. But the best tip is to shop with restraint. And that’s The Savage Truth.