About 75% of Americans plan to do at least half of their holiday shopping online this year, according to TransUnion’s 2019 Holiday Retail Fraud Survey.
But while online shopping helps you skip the crowds at the mall, it can be a cybersecurity minefield. “The holidays are a bonanza for cybercriminals,” Dave Baggett, co-founder and CEO of anti-phishing start-up Inky tells CNBC Make It. “People are buying a lot of things over a short period of time, and they are hurried about it. This presents opportunities for crooks.”
Here’s a one-stop guide on how to best protect yourself while shopping this holiday season.
1. Don’t click links in emails
Emails are a particularly common way for fraudsters to gain access to your credit card information or identity. Hackers send what’s called a phishing email, in which they copy a store’s sale or discount email and include a link to a false portal asking for your info.
“Email is the number-one way cybercrime of all forms happens. If a bad guy can get you to click on a link in an email, he can do all manner of bad things to your online life,” Baggett says. If you do get a tempting promotion, go directly to the retailer’s website by typing its name in your browser.
2. Don’t open attachments from retailers
In the same way that you should avoid clicking on email links, you don’t open up attachments from retailers. “Retailers won’t hide deals in attachments – that’s where attackers hide malware,” says Michael Madon, general manager of Mimecast Security Awareness and a former cybersecurity director for the U.S. Treasury.
Cyber criminals aren’t only impersonating retailers, either. You could get a fake email that seems to be from a major shipping company like UPS, FedEx or DHL. Instead of clicking on a tracking number listed in an email or opening up an attachment, go directly to ups.com or fedex.com to check the tracking number.
3. Avoid pop-ups and ads
Malware and viruses aren’t just spread via email. They can follow you around the Internet in the form of pop-ups and advertisements — these are actually referred to as malvertising, or malicious advertising.
These types of ads can send you to sites that ask for your information, but they can also infect your device with a wide variety of harmful programming such as adware, spyware and ransomware. This is a form of malware that locks up your computer or specific files and forces you to pay to get access back.
“If a deal is legitimate, it will be on the company’s site. Pop-ups are an easy way for cybercriminals to lure you in,” Madon says.
4. Beware of e-skimmers
Card skimming has been happening for years. It’s a scam that typically happens at gas stations or ATMs, where a criminal installs a device that gathers credit card numbers and information when you swipe your card. That practice has gone digital, the FBI says. Cyber thieves can install malicious code on a retailer’s website to gather credit card data when you check out.
To protect yourself from this practice, you can pay using a third party such as PayPal, Venmo or Amazon, if the retailer allows it, so the store never actually has your credit card number. Or you can create a virtual credit card through sites like Privacy.com, or on your card issuer’s website, that provide temporary numbers so your information stays secure.
5. Use a credit card
6. Use a secure network to shop
Almost half of Americans, 45%, have used public Wi-Fi to access sensitive information, according to a survey by payment compliance provider PCI Pal.
But with all the bad bots and cyber criminals lurking during the holiday season, it can be a particularly dangerous time of year.
When shopping online, make sure you’re using a private Wi-Fi connection or your smartphone’s cellular network to browse the internet. Public Wi-Fi networks are notoriously insecure and could open you up to malware or hacking.
“Without proper network precautions, the hacker sitting a few seats down at your local Starbucks could sneak into your device and watch you input your credit card information,” Madon says.
If you absolutely need to use public Wi-Fi, use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, that will encrypt your browsing history and activity. Hotspot Shield Free is a free VPN that will allow you to connect up to five devices from one account. If you’re willing to pay, experts recommend ExpressVPN, which has packages starting at about $100 a year.
7. Be suspicious of free offers
During the holidays, Baggett says there’s an “explosion” of survey and gift card scams. These are generally emails that supposedly offer you payments or gift cards in exchange for taking surveys.
Instead, when the user clicks through, they end up on websites that may look legitimate and ask you for your credit card information or Amazon account credentials “so they can pay you.” Yet when you type your credentials in this site, you’re giving them directly to the attacker.
These types of emails may also contain a common technique Baggett calls “hidden text.” Normally invisible to you, this is text scammers put in to confuse the mail protections that Microsoft, Google, and others use to try to protect you.
A look at a scam survey email recently sent to a consumer. Inky manually modified the email to make the hidden text visible (seen here in light purple).
8. Diversify your passwords
Almost half of Americans, 47%, use the same passwords over and over again, according to PCI Pal. But cyber thieves can use a stolen password and try to break into other accounts and sites that may expose your personal data.
This is especially common during the holiday shopping season. “Phishing attempts can often be disguised as signups for retail rewards programs,” Madon says. “If you take up on the offer, use a password that you haven’t used before,” he recommends.
For a more long-term solution, consider getting a password manager like Dashlane (free limited version, unlimited password plan is $4.99 a month). These programs will automatically generate unique, secure passwords for all your accounts and remembers them for you.
9. Monitor your accounts
Throughout the holiday season, keep a close eye on your bank and credit card accounts. “Often criminals will make small charges using bot technology to see if the charge will go through before making larger purchases,” Pavan Thetha, head of bot management at Radware, tells CNBC Make It.
To help protect your identity, set up alerts and monitoring — either with your bank or an outside app such as IdentityForce — that will let you know if any suspicious activity occurs. Also, keep a close eye on your annual credit report for any new accounts or queries you didn’t initiate.
10. Beware gift card scams
A gift card can be the perfect holiday gift for that hard-to-please person on your list, but scams tied to these cards are becoming increasingly popular. For example, one popular strategy used by criminals is to scan or write down the card number in the store, draining the funds before they are even gifted.
When buying physical gift cards off the shelf, carefully inspect it to make sure there’s no tampering and you cannot see the code or pin. Many experts recommend buying electronic gift cards online.
“At the end of the day, bad guys like to exploit our holiday spirit and use it against us,” Baggett says. “Sadly, we need to be more vigilant this time of year than at any other.”