NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The holidays aren’t just a great time for consumers and retailers – they’re a great time for identity thieves, too.

According to anti-fraud software provider Identity Guard, identity theft occurs at a rate of 25,000 victims every day – and when you add the busy holidays to the mix, that number could easily rise.Consumers shouldn’t take this data lightly.

Research organiztion Javelin Strategy & Research says that the average out-of-pocket loss from identity theft in the U.S., which includes the cost of cleaning up financial records and covering fraudulent charges, jumped from $387 per incident in 2009 to $631 per incident in 2010.

So how do you remain on guard over the next eight weeks, while still getting all your shopping done for the holidays? These tips from Norwalk, Conn.-based IdentityHawk, which provides identity fraud detection and prevention services, are a good place to start:

    Watch your card. IdentityHawk says that it found 104 million identity records stolen in the first six months of 2011. To make sure that you don’t become just another statistic, the company advises consumers to watch out for “skimming,” which occurs when a store clerk runs your card through a special device not attached to the cash register that captures all of your financial data (it’ll be a separate machine). Keep in mind that any time your credit or debit card is run through any device that’s not an actual cash register, it’s a huge red flag.

    Don’t use debit. Even though plenty of shoppers plan to use debit to avoid adding to crippling credit card debt this shopping season, IdentityHawk recmmends leaving your debit card at home and instead using cash or a credit card if you want to be best protected against fraud. Cash has no trip wires attached to its use, so I.D. thieves don’t target cash transactions, the group says. Also, as MainStreet has reported, debit card users are given a shorter amount of time than credit card users to discover fraud if they hope to recoup any of the funds that were lost. They also can be held liable for the entire sum of money they claim was stolen if they fail to report the fraudulent activity within 60 days. If you do decide to use your credit card this season, just make sure you monitor your purchases on a regular basis.

    Watch where you use an ATM. Far and away, bank ATMs are the safest machines to use to extract cash. Convenience store and gas station ATMs, on the other hand, can be easily manipulated by identity thieves to either steal your card outright or take a picture of it (to steal your PIN number) as you’re using the machine.

    Use “secure” sites when shopping online. Safety-wise, not all websites are the same. If you’re shopping online, use sites that offer encryption technologies that scramble your personal information so hackers can’t get to it. Also, use websites with a URL address that starts with “https.” As IdentityHawk explains, the “s” on the end of the URL address stands for "secure" – meaning it’s an ultra-protected website.

    Change up your passwords. When shopping online, keep your personal passwords separate from your web shopping passwords to better protect your general accounts where you use a personal password (like bank and credit card accounts). Just make up a different password for any web shopping site, and record it for future use. Amazon.com (Stock Quote: AMZN) and eBay.com (Stock Quote: EBAY) are good examples of websites for which you should not use your personal passwords.

    Hopefully these tips will help ensure that your shopping experience is as safe as possible and the Grinch is kept far away from your financial data this holiday season.

    For a full breakdown of which stores are doing what for Black Friday, check out MainStreet's Ultimate Guide to Black Friday 2011!