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How to shop online more safely during the Holiday season (and afterwards)

December 22, 2021

As the holidays approach, many of us increasingly start to search for presents online. But if the last years have taught us anything, it’s that online criminals have figured out that hacking into the IT systems of retail stores is a fast way to make money. Over the last couple of years there were quite a few major retail stores whose customer data got stolen or whose POS systems (Point of Sale systems, their electronic cash registers) were compromised in order to steal customer credit card numbers.
 
While most companies  secure their IT systems, you can do your part, too: To help you with this and to give you peace of mind while online shopping here are five simple things you can do to protect yourself from holiday shopping hacks:

Shop online with trusted retailers

Think about where you would normally shop IRL – and now think about where you normally shop online. Just as with IRL it’s a good idea to stick to trusted brands when buying goods online. There you know their inventory are real and that whatever you buy should actually be delivered. However, scammers can be uncannily good at making look-alike websites, so make sure you’ve landed on the official page. Watch out for a misspelled name or a URL that is slightly off.

If you can’t find whatever you are looking for with the retailers you trust and have to resort to buying it at an unknown online store, do some digging around before entering your payment details – especially if the retailer is offering sensational deals. To evaluate if a retailer is legitimate, you can take several things into account: See if they have a social media following or search for customer reviews. It’s also important to check the retailer’s contact details as well as the terms and conditions. Often, all you need to do is quickly Google the retailer’s name together with the word “experiences”. If a shop is not legit, you’ll often see loads of warnings in the search results - or suspiciously no results at all.

Only shop from secure websites

When you shop online make sure you do so on secure sites only. The good thing is you can tell them apart just by looking at the URL: Secure websites will have a URL address that begins with https://( instead of http://). The little padlock icon in your browser’s address bar should also be closed. By clicking / double-clicking on the lock you can see the site’s security details. For example, you’ll be able to see if the site has a valid certificate and who has registered the site. Do never buy from a shop if there is a warning about the site’s certificate!

How to pay more securely when shopping online

When it comes to making online purchases, some payment methods are safer than others. For starters, it’s normally a bit more secure to pay with a credit card than a debit card. Credit card companies generally offer customers much better liability protection if something were to go wrong. You can also use a third-party payment
service like PayPal as this allows you to pay without giving the merchant your actual credit card information.
 
If something strange happens during the payment process act immediately. For example, if you suddenly lose the connection and an error message appears, tell the retailer and your bank first before trying to complete the purchase again. To be extra careful, especially when purchasing expensive items, it’s good to document each step. Print out the product description, the order confirmation, the terms and conditions, and any other relevant documents and keep them in a safe place.

Basic ways you can protect yourself while online shopping

The first way to protect yourself is to make sure you’re on a secure device. Start by checking if your browser is up to date. Cybercriminals often exploit software bugs and unpatched vulnerabilities to access personal data. It’s also a good idea to install antivirus software to help safeguard against malware. Some even have multiple layers of protection like anti-phishing and browser protection. 

Secondly, use strong, unique passwords for each account you create. Never use the same password for multiple accounts and avoid using combinations that could be easy to figure out like your birthday or zip code. You can use a password manager to come up with more secure passwords and remember them for you. For even more security, setting up two-factor authentication is also recommended.
 
Lastly, if you are shopping while logged in to public Wi-Fi you might want to hold off purchasing until you are back on your secured home network. Hackers often lurk on open, unsecured networks and you don’t want to risk exposing sensitive information like passwords or credit card details. If you often shop online while out and about start using a VPN. This way your online activities will be anonymized and encrypted, while - it at the same time - it will also help keep you safe from snoopers. 

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