Tips for Safe Holiday Online Shopping

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The holiday countdown is on, and more than half of holiday shoppers plan to make purchases online during the 2019 season of giving. Unfortunately, it’s also the season for online scammers to make a killing — typically, at your expense.

Online purchase scams, which can expose your identity and even drain your wallet, are the riskiest form of consumer fraud, according to a report published by the Better Business Bureau. And a recent Experian survey found that 43% of victims said their identity theft occurred while holiday shopping online.

While the thought of getting ripped off — during the holiday season, no less — is enough to make anyone say “Bah, humbug!” there are ways you can protect yourself while holiday shopping online.

Online holiday season shopping: The facts

Shopping heats up in November and December, and a lot of those transactions occur on laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. Amid the increase in e-commerce, financial fraud climbs, too.

  • 8% of consumers surveyed in 2018 said they were a victims of identity theft during the holiday season.
  • 43% of online shoppers surveyed said their identity theft occurred holiday shopping online.
  • 56% of holiday shoppers plan to make purchases online in 2019.
  • $1,047.83: average amount that American consumers plan to spend on holiday shopping in 2019.
  • Up to $149 billion: online holiday shopping sales for 2019 (projected), from November to January.
  • 84% of holiday shoppers plan to use their smartphones to research products and look for coupons before buying in-store.
  • 18%: The amount online sales are projected to grow in 2019 compared with 2018.

How to protect yourself while holiday shopping online and afterward

The holidays should be a time of joy as you spend time with friends and family — not stress and frustration as you untangle a case of identity theft or financial fraud. Stay ahead of online scammers and identity thieves by using these tips to help secure your personal information while shopping online.

Ship to a secure location

The rise of online shopping has led to an increase of home deliveries — and with it, an increase in “porch pirates”, or thieves who steal packages from doorsteps. If no one’s home to accept a package, consider shipping to your office or another safe place. UPS, Amazon, and FedEx all now have shipping lockers available for secure deliveries.

Only use official retailer apps to shop

Mobile apps allow you shop for and purchase items while you’re on the go — making holiday shopping a breeze. But the danger arises if you unknowingly install an app laced with malicious software, or malware. Criminals use these apps to infiltrate smartphones and do any number of things, like direct users to fraudulent premium subscription services or automatically subscribing users to expensive content providers without the user’s consent. .

Protect yourself against malicious mobile apps by only downloading apps from reputable stores, such as Galaxy Apps, the App Store, Amazon App Store and Google Play. Some providers, such as Google Play, scan apps for malware prior to publishing them on their store.

Don’t save your credit card information on your accounts

While it may be convenient to store personal and payment information in your online accounts, it does come with risk. Some retail websites may not be equipped to secure your info, which could leave your personal details and payment card data vulnerable to cyberthieves or data breaches.

If a hacker accesses your favorite shopping account, it could then be easy for them to make fraudulent purchases with the credit card information you’ve saved in that account. That’s why it’s best to either skip the autofill option or try using a password manager, which provides an extra layer of protection to your account info.

Consider using Apple Pay or Google Pay for a second layer of protection

Credit card fraud is a serious problem in the U.S., but using a digital wallet or app, such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, Venmo, or others can increase your transaction security.

The digital wallet obscures your payment card information so the merchant sees a unique, one-time code that’s only good for that purchase. So if a store employee or a hacker tries to get their hands on the store’s payment information, they wouldn’t be able to see your credit card or bank details.

Don’t buy from unfamiliar retailers without confirming it’s legit

Expect a record for online holiday spending this year. But shopping IRL — in real life — offers one advantage: You can usually be sure the business and the inventory exist. On the web, some businesses are fabricated by people who just want your credit card information and other personal details. To play it safe, consider doing online business only with retailers you trust and have shopped with before. Or at least spend the time to confirm it’s a legitimate entity, by checking customer reviews and other consumer feedback.

Don’t jump at the lowest price

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and other big sales along the way have become a tradition of holiday shopping. But if a website offers a deal that seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Compare prices and pictures of the merchandise at similar websites. Rock-bottom prices could be a red flag that the business doesn’t have those items in stock. The website may exist only to get your personal information.

Never make purchases on public Wi-Fi

You might be tempted to take your shopping spree to a coffee shop for a cup of joe. Keep in mind, Wi-Fi networks use public airwaves. With a little tech know-how and the freely available Wi-Fi password at your favorite cafe, someone can intercept the data you send and receive while on free public Wi-Fi.

Shopping online usually means giving out information that an identity thief would love to grab, including your name, address, and credit card information. Bottom line: It’s never a good idea to shop online or log in to any website while you’re connected to public Wi-Fi.

Try shopping with the extra security of a VPN

Still can’t resist the lure of shopping online while sipping that peppermint latte? If you must shop online on public Wi-Fi, consider installing and using a VPN — short for virtual private network — on all mobile devices and computers before connecting to any Wi-Fi network.

A VPN creates an encrypted connection between your smartphones and computers and the VPN server. Think of it as a secure tunnel your Internet traffic travels through while you browse the web, making the data you send and receive safer from interception by nearby hackers.

Use strong passwords and a password manager

If someone has the password to your account, they could log in, change the shipping address, and order things with stored payment data while you get stuck with the bill. Help keep your account safe by securing it with a strong password — “Santa123” won’t do. Here are some tips on how:

  • Use a complex set of at least 10 lowercase and uppercase numbers, letters, and symbols.
  • Don’t use personal information that others can find or guess, such as birthdates, your kids’ names, or your favorite color.
  • Don’t use the same password — however strong — on multiple accounts. A data breach at one company could give criminals access to your other, shared-password accounts.
  • Consider using a password manager to generate and safely store those strong, complex passwords.

Check security policies on your selected retailers

That small lock icon in the corner of your URL bar tells you that the web page you’re on has privacy protection installed. The URL will start with “https.” These websites mask any data you share, typically on pages that ask for passwords or financial information.

If you don’t see that lock or the “s” after “http,” then the webpage isn’t secure. There is no privacy protection attached to these pages, so we suggest you exercise caution before providing your credit card information over these sites.

Don’t get tripped up in holiday shopping scam emails

Sometimes, something in your email in-box can stir your holiday consumer cravings. For instance, it might be tempting to open an email from an unfamiliar business that promises a “special offer.” But that offer could be special in a bad way.

Clicking on emails from unknown senders and unrecognizable sellers could infect your computer with viruses and malware. It’s better to play it safe. Delete them, don’t click on any links, and don’t open any attachments from individuals or businesses you are unfamiliar with.

No retailers ask for your Social Security number, so don’t give it out

No shopping website will ever need your Social Security number. If you’re asked for very personal details, call the customer service line and ask whether you can supply some other identifying information. Or just walk away and find a better-known, accommodating website for your holiday buys.

Buy with credit cards

Attention, holiday shoppers: You’ll usually get the best liability protection — online and offline — when you use a credit card. Here’s why.

If someone racks up unauthorized charges on your credit card, federal regulations say you won’t have to pay while the card company investigates. Most major credit cards offer $0 liability for fraudulent purchases.

Keep in mind, your liability for unauthorized charges on your debit card is capped at $50, if you report it within two business days. But if someone uses your account and you don’t report the theft, after 60 days you may not be reimbursed at all.

You can also try a virtual credit card. Some banks offer this nifty tool that acts like an online version of your card. With a virtual credit card, the issuer will randomly generate a number that’s linked to your account, and you can use it anywhere online and choose when the number expires. It might be best to generate a new number every time you buy something online, or when you shop with a new retailer. Anyone who tries to use that number will be out of luck.

Use prepaid debit cards

Using a prepaid debit card removes a lot of the risk that goes with online shopping. These are different from debit and credit cards because the money isn’t connected to your credit history or to a bank account. You just load money onto the prepaid debit card, use that balance for purchases and reload when needed.

So if a scammer gets hold of the card information, the crime pretty much ends there. The crook can’t open new credit accounts in your name, drain your checking account, or make purchases over the amount you’ve already loaded.

Plus, you still have some degree of fraud protection. If you have previously registered the card and you report the loss or theft to the card issuer, most will restore your original balance and issue a new card. However, since many prepaid debit cards come with high fees, read the terms before getting one, and consider only using these for holiday shopping.

After purchasing gifts, keep an eye on all your accounts and bank statement

Robust holiday shopping can add pages to your credit card statements. Check your statements for fraudulent charges at least once a week or set up account alerts. When you receive a text or email about a charge, you can check the message and likely easily recall whether you recognize the charge and made the purchase.

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