Online Holiday Shopping Like a Pro

‘Tis the season when even those who know a thing or two about Internet scams tend to let down their guard in the face of an eye-popping discount or the stress of last-minute holiday shopping. So here’s a quick refresher course on how to make it through the next few weeks without getting snookered online.

Adopting a shopping strategy of simply buying from the online merchant with the lowest advertised prices can be a bit like playing Russian Roulette with your wallet, for the simple reason that there are tons of completely fake e-commerce sites out there looking to separate the unwary from their credit card details.

Even people who shop mainly at big-name online stores can get scammed if they’re not wary of too-good-to-be-true offers. Here are some other safety and security tips to keep in mind when shopping online:

WHEN IN DOUBT, CHECK ‘EM OUT:

If you don’t know much about the online merchant that has the item you wish to buy, take a few minutes to investigate its reputation. After all, it’s not uncommon for bargain basement phantom Web sites to materialize during the holiday season, and then vanish forever not long afterward.

If you’re buying from an online store that is brand new, the risk that you will get scammed increases significantly.  How do you know the lifespan of a site selling that must-have gadget at the lowest price? One easy way to get a quick idea is to run a basic WHOIS search on the site’s domain name. The more recent the site’s “created” date, the more likely it is a phantom store.

USE A CREDIT CARD:

It’s nearly impossible for consumers to tell how secure a main street or online merchant is, and safety seals or testimonials that something is “hacker safe” are a guarantee of nothing. Such sites are just as likely to be compromised as e-commerce sites without these security seals.

It’s best just to shop as if they’re all compromised. With that in mind, if you have the choice between using a credit or debit card, shop with your credit card.

Sure, the card associations and your bank are quick to point out that you’re not liable for fraudulent charges that you report in a timely manner, whether it’s debit or a credit card. But this assurance may ring hollow if you wake up one morning to find your checking accounts emptied by card thieves after shopping at a breached merchant with a debit card.

Who pays for the fees levied against you by different merchants when your checks bounce? You do. Does the bank reimburse you when your credit score takes a ding because your mortgage or car payment was late? No.

THE PADLOCK IS SECURE?:

For years, consumers have been told to look for the padlock when shopping online. Maybe this was once sound advice. But, the “look for the lock” has created a false sense of security for many Internet users, and has contributed to a dangerous and widespread misunderstanding about what the lock icon is really meant to convey.

To be clear, you absolutely should run away from any e-commerce site that does not include the padlock (i.e., its Web address does not begin with “https://”).  But the presence of a padlock icon next to the Web site name in your browser’s address bar does not mean the site is legitimate. Nor is it any sort of testimonial that the site has security against intrusion from hackers.

The https:// part of the address merely signifies that the data being transmitted back and forth between your browser and the site is encrypted and can’t be read by third parties.

Now that anyone can get SSL certificates for free, phishers and other scammers that practice their trade via fake Web sites are starting to up their game. According to PhishLabs, roughly half of all phishing sites now feature the padlock.

CHECK THE SHIPPING:

Often times, items that are advertised at steeper discounts than other online stores make up for it by charging way more than normal for shipping and handling.

Be careful what you agree to: Check to make sure you know how long the item will take to be shipped, and that you understand the store’s return policies. Also, keep an eye out for hidden surcharges, and be wary of casually clicking “ok” during the checkout process.

DON’T TAKE THE BAIT:

Be on guard against phishing and malware schemes that take advantage of shopper distraction and frenzy during the holidays. In years past we’ve seen both leverage emails crafted to look like they were sent from a name-brand store claiming that there was a problem with your order or some component of the shipping process.

One perennial phishing and malware scam that seems to kick into high gear around the holidays is spam that seems to have been sent by the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS or some other shipping service, warning of a wayward package.

When in doubt about such a message, visit the site you ordered from or your package is being shipped from directly, and avoid clicking on links or attachments in the email — particularly messages that warn of some dire consequences unless you act quickly. Phishers and malware schemes typically seize upon some kind of emergency to create a false alarm that often causes recipients to temporarily let their guard down.

CHECK YOUR STATEMENTS:

Some credit card companies offer cardholders that ability to use “virtual credit cards” — apps that generate a unique, credit card number that is good for just one purchase or for a short period of time. The idea being that if fraudsters compromise the virtual card number, your bank doesn’t have to issue you a new card and you won’t have the headache that comes with entering new card details at all of the sites where you’ve set up automatic monthly payments.

Most importantly, keep a close eye on your monthly statements. Most scammers wait until the holidays to cram through a bunch of unauthorized charges on stolen cards, so that the bogus purchases would get buried amid a flurry of other legitimate transactions. That’s why it’s key to closely review your credit card bill and to quickly dispute any charges you didn’t authorize.

BUDDY UP:

If you’re planning to spend time with friends and family this holiday season, consider giving the gift of your time and helping out with a security checkup. This might involve making sure that their new or old PC has up-to-date security software, or locking down their wireless router by enabling security features and disabling risky ones.

If you’re visiting parents or older relatives, consider helping them bookmark at various online sites and services if they haven’t already done so, such as at the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Postal Service, or their wireless phone provider and/or Internet Service Provider (ISP). You might even take a minute to explain the perils of re-using passwords across multiple sites.

The internet has completely changed the shopping experience. People have easy and convenient access to products around the globe. Don’t let this year’s busy holiday season catch you off guard. Happy holidays and happy shopping from your Team at Aitken & Ormond Insurance.

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