By Cal Cook
More and more people are making their holiday purchases online, and this is a trend that’s likely here to stay. In fact, according to a research paper published by UPS, millennials already make more online than in-store purchases. But online retail comes with a unique set of risks compared to shopping at traditional brick-and-mortar stores. From hackers to phishing attempts, the attack surface (the different ways for a scammer to defraud consumers) is much larger online. Consumers can stay safe shopping online this holiday season using research and tips from ConsumerSafety.org.
Track Your Banking Accounts for Fraudulent Charges
Even if there are no signs of fraud during your online purchase, there’s always the chance for a hacker, or even the website owner themselves, to steal your card information on the back-end of the site. For this reason, it’s important to make purchases on credit whenever possible (and pay them off before you incur interest charges). The Fair Credit Billing Act published by the FTC sets a maximum consumer liability for fraudulent charges at $50. Debit cards have the same limit but only if a charge is reported within two days. If you notice and file a report about the charge after two days, the liability can increase by ten times or more.
Try to check your accounts at least weekly, and even more frequently if you consistently make online purchases with a debit card. If you want to spare yourself the hassle, you can sign up for a service that automatically monitors all your accounts like LifeLock, but if you’re tight on cash this holiday season, just use credit for the purchases and track them weekly. It shouldn’t take more than 10 to 15 minutes tops.
Don’t Make Purchases on Public WiFi
Most people find it hard to resist the convenience of free public WiFi at locations like the coffee shop or hotel. However, it is much easier for hackers to access your information on a shared public network than when you’re using a private WiFi network. If you want to make an online purchase, it’s recommended to just bookmark the site and purchase the item when back on a private WiFi network (so your payment information isn’t broadcasted on the public network).
If you have to make a purchase on a public WiFi network, here are some tips that can help you stay safe:
- Only make purchases on (https) domains. The “s” stands for secure, and these sites encrypt your personal data so it’s not viewable to the owner of the site. You can recognize these sites by the lock icon and the “Secure” wording to the left of the URL if you’re using a Google Chrome browser
- Logout of websites that require sign-in details when you’re finished accessing them. If you just close the browser window, an experienced hacker could be able to acquire your login credentials using “cookies,” which is data from previous browsing sessions
Consider Using a VPN
A Virtual Private Network (or VPN for short) is a “secure communications tunnel for information transmitted between the private and public networks.”  Essentially, a VPN encrypts all of your browsing data before you access the Internet, so it’s much more challenging for a hacker to steal sensitive information. It also prevents third-party companies like your Internet provider from selling your personal information, since they can’t access it either. According to an in-depth WIRED research piece on VPNs, there are two VPN services that stand out for their ratings from independent reviewers:
Like any other service, make sure to do your due diligence before selecting a VPN provider. It may seem like a hassle but it will be well worth it if you avoid being defrauded.
Be Aware of Common Scams
Holiday season is a time not only for online shopping to ramp up, but for online scams to increase as well. Since online scams tend to follow similar patterns, it’s good to follow a best-practices checklist to reduce your risk. Some selected tips from the linked article are: sign up for the Do Not Call Registry and scan all incoming emails with anti-virus software to screen them before opening. But be sure to go through the entire checklist to be as protected as possible. Once you’re aware of the most popular type of scams, like the IRS agent phone scam, you’ll be much less likely to fall for them.
All of this information about online shopping risks may make the activity seem daunting, but it’s important to remember that in-person shopping comes with a unique risk profile of its own. You don’t have to follow every step to benefit from this guide, but every additional preventative action you take may reduce your risk of losing money to scammers this holiday season. So download a recommended VPN, study up on scams, and then buy the family those knit socks they always wanted on Amazon.