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Smart credit tips for holiday shopping season

According to a recent Zogby Analytics survey commissioned by TransUnion, nearly a quarter (22.8 percent) of Americans surveyed plan to spend between $251-$500 on holiday gifts this holiday season. Nearly an additional fifth (18.7 percent) of Americans surveyed plan to spend $501-$1,000 this holiday season.

For many, the arrival of the holiday season seems to send a reflexive signal to start spending. TransUnion provides consumers with some strategies to control spending so that their debt doesn't spiral upwards and their credit score nosedives.

Be strategic about credit:

• Before you start shopping, know the interest rates on your credit cards, as well as what you already owe on your credit cards.

• Monitor your credit regularly. Make sure your credit accurately reflects your credit history. Watch for and correct anything you know is incorrect or unfamiliar as these items could potentially lower your credit score.

• If you're going to open new retail accounts to get a discount on shopping, be aware that this may cause your credit score to suffer a short-term dip.

If you're already carrying a balance on your credit cards:

• Pay off the ones with the highest interest rates first. Don't pay more in interest than you have to.

• If you can, pay more than the minimum each month, otherwise, interest will grow on the remainder of your credit card balance. Try to negotiate your interest rate. In this economic climate, card issuers are anxious to retain consumers who use credit responsibly.

"If you are concerned about your credit score, it might be a better idea to pay for holiday shopping with cash," says Heather Battison, TransUnion's senior director responsible for consumer education. "If lenders see a high credit utilization ratio, they might conclude that you're 'maxing out,' or doing more spending than you can pay for."

TransUnion also provides consumers with proactive steps they can take now that will help minimize their exposure to identity theft – both while shopping online and downtown.

"The holidays present a wealth of opportunity for identity thieves," says Battison. "The hectic holiday season can potentially expose our personal information to theft in both high-tech ways like phishing scams, and in traditional ones, such as a stolen wallet or mail theft."

While these identity theft prevention tips from TransUnion are useful year round, they're especially important during the holiday season:

• When holiday shopping, only carry essential documents with you. Only take your driver's license and the credit card or cards you intend to use that day. Do not carry your Social Security card, birth certificate or passport, and consider leaving at home other types of cards that may have identifying information on them, like wholesale club cards or library cards.

• The holidays mean plenty of extra trash. Shred everything that contains personal, identifying information before throwing it out.

• Keep a close eye on your credit card bills.This is especially important during the holidays. The additional attention to your bill can help you catch any charges you don't recognize on your statement. An added bonus –you'll also be more aware of how much you're spending and be better prepared to stay within your holiday spending budget.

• Monitor your credit. Consider enrolling in a credit monitoring service that will alert you via email to changes in your credit report. This way you will know quickly if someone else has tried to open a new credit account in your name.

• When shopping online, only do business with websites that have security measures in place to protect you. Before you provide any personal or payment information, look for a URL that begins with "https" (not "http") and the emblem of a lock on the page, typically next to the address bar.

• Before and after you surf the web, consider changing your account passwords and keep a list of them in a secure place. Passwords and PIN numbers should be a random mix of letters, numbers and special characters, which makes it harder for identity thieves toguess.

Remember, you're entitled to one free credit score a year. Get more info at www.transunion.com.

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