With Thanksgiving just days away, thoughts are turning to Black Friday and beyond. Catalogs are arriving in the mail, sales are being posted online, ads are being distributed, and there’s no getting around it. Holiday shopping season is upon us.
More and more, however, consumers are doing their holiday shopping online. In 2017, Nielsen reported that 85 percent of US consumers planned to shop online for holiday gifts. Research company eMarketer estimates that nearly 25 percent of all online shopping for the year takes place between November 1 and December 31, and some analysts estimate that shoppers will spend nearly $120 billion online during that time period this year.
And of course shopping online is great. You can shop from the comfort of your own home, so you don’t have to brave the elements, wait in lines, or any of the other assorted holiday complaints. Or at least, shopping online is great until you find the wrong site, fall for a deal that’s just a bit too good to be true, and your information gets stolen.
So if you’re one of the 85% or more of US consumers planning to shop online this holiday season, how do you keep yourself safe?
1. Shop at websites you trust or that you have investigated.
It’s no different than any brick and mortar store. You can always feel safer about where your money is going if it’s a business you’ve frequented before. You know you’re going to get what you paid for, you know the inventory is actually there, and that it isn’t a front for some scammer to get your information or your money. Most any major retail outlet will be a safe and secure transaction, but you should be aware of misspellings in the URL, or sites that use domains other than .com. Both are signs that you might be at a less-than-secure site.
When you’re shopping with a mobile device, experts also suggest you use the apps provided directly by the retailers. Best Buy, Macy’s, JCPenney and almost any major retailer has their own app where you can find and purchase items. In addition, you can do your homework on any new company you might come across. Do they have a social media presence? Are they accredited with the Better Business Bureau? Are there a history of scam complaints? The Better Business Bureau has an online directory and a scam tracker. If you’re concerned, you can also contact the business directly. Experts will tell you that if there’s no contact information readily accessible on the website, it’s a bad sign.
2. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is
This is a good general rule regarding a lot of things in life, but it’s especially true when you’re bargain hunting around the holiday season. If a website is offering a too good to be true price on something, that should set off red flags. Look around at other vendors for the same (or similar) items. In some cases, cybersecurity experts report that suspiciously low prices can be a warning sign that the vendor does not have that item in stock and the website exists solely to gather people’s sensitive information. Likewise, emails from unknown senders which contain a special offer can infect your computer with viruses or malware.
3. Look for the Lock
Never ever buy anything or enter personal data online from a website that doesn’t poses a locked padlock to the left of the URL in the address bar. This lock represents a safe and secure site and will be present on any website that has HTTPS, where the S stands for secure (instead of just HTTP).
4. Avoid public wi-fi or use a VPN
With wi-fi at restaurants, coffee shops, malls, and more, it might be tempting to make a purchase or two while you’re out. This isn’t necessarily the best idea. Wi-Fi networks use public airwaves, and enterprising scammers with a little know-how can snatch things like your name and credit information. But there’s a way around it if you just love using your mobile device or laptop in public. It’s called a VPN—virtual private network. You can install and use it on your mobile devices or computer, and it creates an encrypted connection between your device and its server. Think of it like a secure vestibule between your computer and the wider internet. Most good ones are available for less than $10 per month.
5. Don’t Overshare
If a site is asking for too much information, or irregular information, that should be another red flag. No e-commerce site should ever ask for your social security number. If you’re concerned, contact their customer service line and see if there is some other information you could provide. If you can’t find a customer service line, see tip #1.
6. Use a credit card when possible
Both your debit and credit cards with Arbor Financial Credit Union are covered with Visa Zero Liability protection. And we hope you’re taking advantage of our ID Protect service to safeguard your information. And federal regulations say that if someone steals your credit card information, you won’t have to pay while the card company investigates, and you aren’t immediately out of money. But, if a scammer gets your debit card or bank account information, they can drain your checking account in the meantime.
There are also other important things you can do, like routinely checking your account, going over printed or electronic statements, being proactive about reporting any irregularities to your card issuer or financial institution, reporting any bogus companies to the FTC or Better Business Bureau, and others.
But the big takeaway is that you have a lot of options before you to make sure that you’re not a victim this holiday season, or ever.