National Consumers League

Technology

NCL Technology Issues

Shop smart online this holiday season

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Shopping cart button on a computer keyboardAs Americans return to the workplace next Monday after the long holiday weekend, many will spend a portion of their day surfing the Internet for deals from online retailers. Monday, December 2 -- “Cyber Monday” – is what the retail industry claims to be one of, if not the, busiest Internet shopping days of the year, and with more and more consumers opting to avoid the mall, e-shopping next week is expected to be higher than ever. Spending on Cyber Monday is expected to be in the billions of dollars.

Whether consumers do their shopping online at the workplace or at home, advocates are reminding them to practice safe e-shopping habits in the coming weeks and year-round. The Internet can make your shopping faster and easier, but there can also be pitfalls if you're not careful. There are ways to ensure you have a safe online shopping experience, so that gift-giving is a joyous occasion, not an opportunity for cyber thieves.

NCL's Top Ten Cyber Monday Shopping Tips

  1. Don’t shop online on an unencrypted or open wireless network. As convenient as they seem, an airport or coffee shop’s wireless network is not an appropriate place to conduct financial transactions. Entering personal financial information over an unsecured connection may leave your computer open the to hackers and thieves to capture your financial information. Home Wi-Fi networks can also be compromised, so consumers should find out how to secure their connections.
  2. Secure your computer before shopping online. Before connecting to the Internet or shopping online, take the following three core protections: 1) Install anti-virus and anti-spyware programs and keep them up to date; 2) Install a personal firewall; 3) Regularly update operating system and anti-virus programs to current protections.
  3. Know who you’re dealing with. Before shopping online with an unknown e-store, check out the seller and be sure to get the name and physical address of the vendor in case something goes wrong. If you’re buying gifts on an online auction site, check the track record of the seller before you bid.
  4. Pay the safest way – by credit card, especially when you're purchasing something that will be delivered later. Under federal law you can dispute the charges if you don't get what you were promised. You may also dispute unauthorized charges on your credit card. Consider using a "virtual" credit card number.  These numbers replace your plastic credit card number with a new number that is linked to your real account number.  When you’re prompted to enter your credit card number at checkout, you enter the virtual number instead of the real number.  These "virtual" numbers can be set to have a low credit limit, to only work at certain Web sites, or to expire after a certain period of time (two months from date of purchase is a good rule of thumb).  This way, if the Web site you're shopping at is compromised, the crooks likely won't be able to run up charges on your real credit account since the virtual number.  A note of caution, however: think twice before using a virtual credit card number for services where you will be billed repeatedly or for things like rental car reservations, since the card may not be billed until you pick up the car.
  5. Only shop on safe sites. When providing payment information, the Web site URL address should change from “http” to “https,” (or, less frequently, “shttp”) indicating that the purchase is encrypted or secured. Look for an icon on the browser (generally in the bottom right of the window), such as an image of a padlock closing, to indicate that the page is secure.
  6. Don’t fall for a phishing email or pop-up. Legitimate companies don’t send unsolicited email messages asking for your password, login name, or your financial information. But scammers do, and it’s called “phishing.” Crooks often send emails that look like they’re from legitimate companies – but direct you to click on a link, where they ask for your personal information. Delete these emails.
  7. Be careful when shopping for a gift in an online auction. Consumers sometimes turn to auctions for harder-to-find collectibles or expensive electronics. Understand how the auction works, and check out the seller’s reputation before you bid. Use safe ways to pay, like a credit card. If you use a 3rd party payment system, read the terms carefully to understand what protection, if any, it offers if you don’t receive what you were promised. Always ask about terms of delivery and return options. Be especially wary of auctions that ask for payment via wire transfer.
  8. Turn your computer off when you’re finished shopping. Many people leave their computers running 24/7, the dream scenario for scammers who want to install malicious software—“malware”—on your machine and then control it remotely to enable them to commit cyber crime. To be extra safe, switch off your computer when you are not using it.
  9. Don’t be tempted by offers of free money. Con artists take advantage of cash-strapped consumers during the holidays to offer personal loans or credit cards for a fee upfront. These scammers simply take the money and run. Beware of emails offering loans or credit, especially if you have credit problems.
  10. Visit www.fraud.org to learn more about protecting yourself from online scams year-round and to report suspicious sites, sellers, or scams. You don’t have to be a victim to report a scam, and your information will help law enforcement go after cyber grinches.

Above all, look into the business or individual with whom you are doing business before making the transaction. For more information on avoiding scams throughout the year, visit www.fraud.org.