As the holiday shopping season kicks into full swing, an increasing number of shoppers have been turning to the Internet to look for bargains. More than half of consumers will be choosing to shop online this year, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation, which also reported an increase in the expected volume of online shopping per person. And where there’s money, there’s crime.
Consumers can expect to be hit by an increase in cyberfraud this season, according to electronic payments company ACI Worldwide. This holiday season, the company anticipates a 25% increase in fraudulent attempts, compared with 2013. The dollar amounts of these breaches are expected to increase as well, jumping from $272.71 last year to $376.77 this year.
As cybercriminals ramp up their game, you should too. You can protect yourself and your wallet this holiday season by following these six tips for staying safe:
1. Use a Secure Internet Connection
Not all Internet connections are the same. If you log onto an unsecured network, the kind you’ll find at most cafes, airports and libraries, your data can be easily intercepted by tech-savvy eavesdroppers. That means your user name, password and even your credit card details.
To keep you and your bank account safe, avoid unsecured networks, take precautions if you must use them and limit your activity to behavior that won’t compromise your information, like scanning the news, rather than logging into your email.
2. Stick to Trustworthy Sites, and Beware Email Scams
The more places you enter your financial information, the greater the chance that that information will fall into the wrong hands. That’s why it helps to limit the number of sites with access to your credit card number. When you do grant this information to a website, make sure it’s one you can actually trust.
To protect your data, look for “https” rather than “http” in the URL. That extra letter stands for “secure,” and it will limit the ability of third parties to snoop in on your activities. Some sites, like Gmail and Facebook, redirect to https automatically, but to ensure that all the sites you visit include this added bit of security, download the browser extension HTTPS Everywhere, available for Firefox, Chrome, Opera and even Android phones. If your Internet connection is already slow, using https will add a slight lag, but the increased security is worth your time.
Email is another area for potential hazards. To best protect yourself, be very careful before clicking on any shopping-related links that may appear in your inbox. Always double-check the sender’s address to ensure that the source of the email is legitimate.
The holiday season is an especially vulnerable time for consumers, as the increased volume of purchases means people are more likely to click on a fraudulent email in anticipation of an actual delivery. This season you should be on the alert for a phishing scam asking users to “confirm” an online shopping order or package shipment.
3. Vary Your Passwords, and Share as Little as Possible
If your email gets hacked, what’s the worst that could happen? What about your Amazon account? Your credit card?
To evaluate the risk you face, imagine your finances like a row of dominoes. Each password, log-in page and credit card is an individual piece of a wider network. But unlike the game, your goal is to keep your dominoes as stable and far apart from each as possible. If knocking out one domino threatens to wipe out your finances, you may need to rethink your game strategy.
Diverse passwords can offer a strong defense. Don’t use the same password across different sites – especially not accounts as sensitive as your email, online banking, credit card or PayPal. Make sure your password at each site is hard to crack, and change it frequently. As tempting as it may be, do not store a list of your passwords in your email or in a file on your computer.
E-commerce sites are another area for vulnerability. Whenever possible, avoid storing your credit card information on such sites, and if you must store your information, save only the details for one card per website. That way, you’ll limit the damage a compromised account could incur.
4. Keep Your Computer Clean
When it comes to digital security, you should always apply both preventative and diagnostic measures.
To prevent your information from getting into the wrong hands, make a habit of immediately logging out of any account linked to your financial information. Not only does that include online banking and credit card accounts, it also applies to Amazon, eBay, Etsy and any e-commerce site where you’ve ever made a purchase.
You can use free software like Piriform’s CCleaner to periodically wipe your drive free of the active log-ins, cache and other cookies that accumulate over time, or you can also set your browser to automatically delete all such information upon closing.
If you don’t have a firewall installed, consider setting one up, to add an important layer of security preventing access to your machine. Keep all your programs up to date to avoid vulnerabilities in your system.
Even the most careful Internet user can get hit by malicious software. To keep your computer safe, install anti-malware software and run frequent scans of your drive to find and destroy any viruses or spyware.
5. Opt for Credit Over Debit
Whenever given the choice between using a credit card and a debit card for online transactions, you should always opt for credit to protect yourself from cyberthreats.
By entering your debit card information online, you’re potentially allowing criminals direct access to your funds. With that access, they can empty your account in no time. Getting that money back is a bureaucratic nightmare, and in the meantime, your financial reserves will be limited. If you think your debit card has been compromised, you should investigate the charge as soon as possible.
By reporting unauthorized charges within two business days, you’ll limit your liability to $50, per federal law. Report within 60 days and you may be liable for up to $500. After that cutoff, however, there’s no limit on how much you may have to pay.
If you were to use a credit card in the same situation, the potential harm to your finances would be significantly lower. By keeping an eye on your account, you can easily dispute unauthorized charges and get them reversed before they take a bite out of your savings. Consumer liability for such charges is limited to $50, as long as you report the activity within 60 days.
So even if criminals run up charges into the thousands, the most you’ll lose is 50 bucks. Still, it’s unfortunate to have to pay any amount for someone else’s crimes, and luckily most credit companies agree. You’re unlikely to actually see those $50 fees, because the majority of card providers offer their customers zero-liability protection in the event that their accounts are compromised.
6. Stay on Top of Your Accounts
Knowledge is power. One of the best ways to protect yourself is to keep a close eye on your bank and credit card accounts. Don’t wait for your statement to be prepared to check the status of your accounts. Log in frequently (over a secure connection, of course) and monitor all recent activity.
Cybercriminals know that many people fail to give their accounts the scrutiny they deserve. That’s why they start out by making small charges on a compromised account, starting at $5 a month. That’s money you might not notice disappearing, and by the time they’re moving hundreds of dollars out of your account, it might be too late to get back all the smaller charges that have added up.
Written by Melinda Szell
Lock, card and keyboard image via Shutterstock