Online shopping offers an ease and convenience that appeals to many, from working individuals to retirees. The ability to avoid traffic and crowded retail stores in favor of shopping from almost any location by using a phone, laptop, home computer, or tablet is hard to resist. This is particularly true during the busy holiday season. Online sales during this period have been on a steady incline, with forecasts from Deloitte anticipating as much as a 22 percent increase over previous years. While holiday sales in general are expected to climb as high as $1.10 trillion, online sales are anticipated to reach as much as $134 billion.
Although the simplicity of shopping online is tempting, the Internet is unfortunately home to many skilled and effective online criminals and their schemes. While many consumers love online shopping, so do criminals who use the Internet to phish for information, scam, and spread viruses. Statistics from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center indicate that over a five-year period spanning from 2013 to 2017, there were an average of 284,000 complaints a year. The report also showed that victims of online crimes lost approximately $1.42 billion in 2017.
But the risk of online criminals shouldn’t hinder consumers from doing their holiday shopping online. Before shopping on the Internet, consumers must learn how to do so safely. Following the right tips can ensure that they know what to look for, what to avoid, and how to keep their shopping experience as enjoyable and problem-free as possible.
Consumers should ideally only shop from trusted retail sites, as there are a lot of fake websites out there that are not what they claim to be and may not have any of the inventory advertised. In some cases, these sites greatly resemble popular retailers, yet their URL may be slightly different. If something looks off about the website, don’t buy from it. Other fake websites are set up to look like any other small business found online. They may have professional-looking sites but, for example, offer too-good-to-be-true pricing on popular items. To avoid falling victim to scam sites, one should never provide credit card or other personal information to an online retailer that they are not familiar with.
Because not all online retailers are scammers, there are a number of ways to check out the validity of a site. One way is to ask friends if they are familiar with and have shopped from the site. Review websites and social media can also reveal potentially negative information or confirm whether or not a company even really exists. The Better Business Bureau is another way to find out if there is a history of complaints. If no information is available or if you cannot find a business address and phone number, then you should move on and shop from another retailer. If prices are unnaturally low, look around at other retailers for similar pricing. If no other retailer comes close, proceed with caution.
Many locations, such as coffee shops, airports, and even restaurants, offer public Wi-Fi as a convenience or perk for their patrons. While this may seem like a nice gesture, it is also a dangerous one that creates easy access to your private information. Skilled criminals may be able to see not only what you’re shopping for but also what you enter, such as payment information during online checkout.
There are times, however, when using public Wi-Fi is the only option. When that happens, a virtual private network or VPN, can help reduce the risk of hackers and other threats to one’s virtual privacy. A VPN creates a secure network connection when using the Internet. This encrypted connection makes it difficult for outside parties to access information while one is shopping online.
Passwords are an important line of defense against cyber-criminals. When they are stolen, they give a thief the keys to information that can be extremely costly, such as access to one’s bank or retail store accounts. Keep passwords safe by never sharing them with others, and avoid using cute or easy-to-guess passwords such as birth dates, favorite colors, or names of pets. Instead, use passwords that are complex and difficult to hack. Include a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. People should also use different passwords for different accounts, as this prevents hackers from gaining access to all of one’s accounts should they breach one.
Prior to adding financial information at checkout, verify that the page is secure. A secure page will ensure that this data is appropriately masked as it is transferred from the browser to the server. Consumers may confirm that the site is secured by checking that the Web address begins with “https” and that there is a locked padlock in the browser address bar. A website that fails to have both of these identifiers isn’t secure, and consumers should not input their passwords or financial information.
Emails are often a tool used to spread viruses to unsuspecting individuals. Malicious emails are often sent by an individual or a fake business that offers something of interest to the recipient. During the holidays, this may be a promise of extreme discounts, coupons, or sales events. Some scammers may send fake invoices or emails that confirm an order that the intended victim never made. These emails are often sent with links or attachments. When opened, they contain viruses or malware that can steal information or damage one’s computer. People should generally avoid opening emails or attachments from people and businesses they’ve never heard of before and delete them instead.
Shopping websites generally do not require highly confidential information about their customers. Information such as Social Security numbers should not be necessary to make a purchase. A customer may choose to contact customer service for alternative solutions. The safest solution, however, is to shop elsewhere.
Credit cards offer a degree of security against fraudulent purchases that one can’t get from using debit cards. Consumers who shop either online or offline receive liability protection against unauthorized purchases that are reported in a timely manner. An individual’s liability is often between $0 and $50 if the crime is reported within two business days. Protection is not without an expiration date, however. After 60 days, a person who has not yet reported the crime may not receive any reimbursement.
One can receive an additional level of protection by using a virtual credit card if it is offered by their financial institution. With a virtual card, a person may generate a new virtual number that is linked to their credit card account. The consumer can set this number to expire whenever they desire, and they may generate a new one with every online purchase.
Checking one’s credit card on a weekly basis should become a habit, particularly during the busy holiday season. Because consumers generally make more purchases using their cards, it can be easy to miss charges that shouldn’t be there. By reviewing statements regularly, it’s easier to remember what purchases one has or has not made. Account alerts via text or email messages are another way to keep track of charges that are made.
After placing an order, keep track of everything that has to do with the purchase. This includes the receipt and, if the items are being shipped, the order’s confirmation number and its tracking number. These items are important if an item needs to be returned or exchanged or if a consumer does not get the goods that they paid for.
If an item is not received and cannot be successfully tracked, it is likely that the company has conducted a bogus sale and is not legitimate. In this situation, contact the credit card provider for assistance or to see if the charges can be removed. One should also close their account and contact the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). If one’s identity has been stolen, an identity theft recovery plan is available from the FTC, as are recovery steps that can be taken.
Safety is important when shopping online for the holidays, but the threats that exist don’t stop just because the season comes to an end. Commit to safe online shopping practices every time, regardless of the time of year.
A Mark Cuban Company