Black Friday and Cyber Monday are some of the biggest shopping days in the United States, but increasingly people are shopping on these days from the comfort of their own home. Not only can you often find better deals online, but you’re more likely to actually get the product you’re looking for (unlike when you wrestle your way through a department store only to discover that they have sold out of it). No one can be blamed for preferring to sip cocoa on the couch than wait in a line for hours in the cold.
But despite its conveniences, there are also serious dangers associated with online shopping. Identity theft is one of the most common risks, affecting 3 million people in 2018, and in a quarter of those cases, victims lost their money. The most popular form of identity theft is credit card fraud, with 160,000 reports of credit card fraud made in 2018. There are other risks, too, including overpayment scams and fake online stores. So how can you enjoy the pleasures of shopping from your living room while also remaining safe?
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Shop Using Secure Devices
The first step to staying safe online is ensuring that your computer or phone is secure before you begin making purchases. If you’re shopping from an Android device, check out our article about enabling built-in Android protections. If you’re using a computer instead, make sure that your antivirus protection is updated and your firewall is enabled. You should also check that your web browser is updated since browsers are constantly patching security threats just like an operating system.
There are also tools you can easily install in your browser that help you determine whether or not a website is trustworthy. SiteJabber is one example. Whenever you land on a website, SiteJabber will offer a stoplight rating of the site. These ratings are based on multiple factors including how secure it is and other users’ reviews of the site. This can be a great tool for determining whether an online store is real, fake, or just flakey with fulfillment. Another great tool is HTTPS Everywhere, which can make unsecured websites more secure by protecting the information you exchange over the site. One of the most popular browser add-ons is AdBlocker, which blocks pop-up advertisements. While pop-ups are annoying, they can also deliver malware or viruses to your computer, making tools like AdBlocker an important part of keeping your devices—and your personal information—safe.
Safe Online Shopping Practices
Even though scams are becoming increasingly sophisticated, thankfully, there are many reliable ways to stay safe. Most don’t cost you anything, just requiring a bit of observation and know-how. Below are some tried and tested methods to make your holiday shopping safer.
Check for HTTPS
When shopping unfamiliar websites, always check that the URL begins with HTTPS. The S is important because it stands for “secure.” Websites with this kind of encryption protect the data that you exchange on a website, making it less likely that information you enter on the site will end up in the hands of scammers. Most sites using https will display a closed lock before the URL, and in some browsers the address bar will be green if the site is secure.
Avoid Sites With Cluttered Designs
If you land on a website that is covered in banner ads or pop-ups, leave. Sites like this are hotbeds of malware, which is often embedded in the links and ads that cover it. Reputable sites want their navigation to be simple so that you can find the product you want and purchase it. Instead, cluttered sites are often designed to lead you through a rabbit hole of ads in an attempt to install bad code on your device.
Beware Requests For Information
Reputable businesses will never ask you to exchange personal data through email. They know that email is not a secure enough or efficient enough way to do this. Instead, they rely on their websites that are much more secure, protecting their customers and themselves. So if you receive an email asking for an account number or other personal information, recognize that this is probably a phishing scam. Rather than replying, delete the email or report it as spam.
Use Strong Passwords
As we come to rely on the internet for more things, we find ourselves juggling more passwords than we can remember. This leads some people to fall back on passwords like “1234” or “password.” Other people simply use the same password for every account. The problems with these approaches are obvious: common passwords are easy to crack, and if someone figures out the password for one of your accounts, they suddenly have the password to all of your accounts.
Instead, create strong passwords and consider using a password manager. Strong passwords should contain eight or more characters (or as many as allowed by the website). Use a combination of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols. When possible, avoid using words or names. If you like using words or names as a way to remember your password, consider using an acronym instead.
Password managers are also a great way to protect your accounts. They allow you to create long, completely random strings of characters that make the most secure passwords, and because the password manager is responsible for recalling these complicated passwords, you don’t have to be number savant or write those passwords down on sticky notes for all the world to see.
Beware Of Abbreviated URLs On Phones
You may have noticed that when you navigate the web on your phone, URLs get shortened from something like https://words-that-make-sense/ to something nonsensical like http://bit.ly/2cm1m. If you’re on a computer, you can simply hover over a URL like this and see the full address, but that’s not an option on your phone. On a phone, it’s impossible to know if the shortened URL is a legitimate site or not just by looking at it. For this reason, it’s better to use your phone only for sites you’re already familiar with and shop unfamiliar websites with a computer.
I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to using free, public wifi. I love writing in my favorite coffee shop, where it smells nice and I can see something other than my own four walls. But the problem with free wifi is that it lacks security. With a little know-how, anyone can observe your every keystroke, making free public wifi an excellent way for criminals to scoop up lots of personal data. If you’re thinking about using public wifi while doing your holiday shopping, think again. It’s much safer to use your home network or a hot spot to make those purchases.
Holiday shopping can be a lot of fun, helping build anticipation for holiday traditions and family time. It feels so satisfying to watch someone you love unwrap that perfect gift. You don’t have to let scammers and hackers take away that pleasure. Using these safe shopping practices, you can enjoy the holidays without fear for your personal data.