Being Safe and Smart Bargain-Hunting Online
For bargain stalkers, one of the best times of the year is just days away. Many of those weary of the pushes, shoves, lines and stampedes in stores on Black Friday may go online on Cyber Monday to hunt for killer deals – and from the comfort of home.
But shoppers won’t be the only crowd in cyberspace. Lurking behind the excitement are hackers, phishers and con artists of all stripes aiming to steal and rob your personal and financial information with a plethora of attack tactics.
“Phishing emails from fake FedEx and similar bogus shipping and delivery notices are particularly popular with criminals. They’ll try to trick you out of your password or credit card number,” says Beverly Moore, a UTHealth information security manager. “Ads for discounted merchandise, free shipping and other special deals are also among the gimmicks.”
So how do you avoid such pitfalls? Moore and The University of Texas Police at Houston (UT Police) have put together a host of tips to protect you from online attacks while you shop.
- Keep your antivirus software up-to-date. Make sure you have installed the latest firewall and antivirus software to protect your computer against online attacks.
- Use your smartphone wisely. Mobile devices offer convenient consumer resources but may also provide fraudsters with your personal and account information. The rule of thumb is to be sure that what you are installing comes from a legitimate source, keep an eye on your bill, investigate if your battery runs down quickly, and try not to leave your phone unattended.
- Use passwords. It's one of the simplest and most important steps for securing your devices, computers and accounts. If you need to create an account with the merchant, be sure to use a strong password. Always use more than 10 characters, with numbers, special characters and uppercase and lowercase letters. Use a unique password for every account.
- Don’t respond to pop-ups. When a window pops up promising you cash or gift cards for answering a question or taking a survey, close it by pressing Control + F4 for Windows and Command + w for Macs.
- Don’t click on links or open attachments in emails. Be cautious about all emails you receive from financial institutions or vendors, even those from legitimate organizations including your favorite retailers. Emails could be spoofed and contain malicious software, or malware. Instead, contact the source directly.
- Don’t auto-save your personal information. When purchasing online, you may be given the option to save your personal information online for future use. Consider if the convenience is really worth the risk. The convenience of not having to reenter the information is insignificant compared to the significant amount of time you'll spend trying to repair the loss of your stolen personal information.
Sound business practices
- Compare prices. Similar items typically fall into a general price range. Scammers will try to entice victims to their websites with ridiculously low prices. Also, remember to account for shipping and handling in the cost of online purchases.
- Research the seller. Anyone can set up a shop online. Limit your online shopping to merchants you know and trust. When in doubt, check with the Federal Trade Commission. Confirm the online seller's physical address, where available, and phone number in case you have questions or problems.
- Enter financial information only on secure sites. Don’t email or text financial information, including your credit card or bank account number. If you initiate a purchase online, look for indicators that the site is secure. Although no indicator is foolproof, look for a lock icon on the browsers status bar, or a URL address starting with "https.” The "s" in "https" stands for "secure" and indicates that communication with the Web page is encrypted.
- Don't send cash or wire money for payment. Don’t wire money via Western Union or MoneyGram for items purchased online. You may be giving your money to scammers, and you may never get the item you "ordered." Pay by credit or charge card.
- Keep a paper trail. Print and save records of all your online transactions, including the product description, price, online receipt and emails.
- Review the refund policy and delivery rates. Look to see if you can return a product for a full refund if you aren’t satisfied. Check out who pays for the cost of shipping of a returned item. Is there a restocking fee for returning an item?
- Consider reputation. Reviews from other people, experts and columnists can give you an idea of how a product performs. But don't put all of your trust in one review. A brand's reputation for quality and good customer service can really pay off.