Today begins a month-long shopping spree starting tomorrow with Black Friday and continuing through Cyber Monday.  In 2018, retailers brought in a record $6.2 billion dollars in online sales on Black Friday and another $7.9 billion on Cyber Monday.  And U.S. shoppers spent a whopping $126 billion on online shopping over the 2018 holiday season.

Over 69% of Americans shop online each year.  There are three points in the transaction that consumers should have their cybersecurity sensibilities about them.  First, during the advertisement of the product drawing the consumer to the purchase site. Second, the actual online retail site itself.  Third, what happens with the credit card information after it has been entered into the site. 

Here are some tips and tricks to stay safe during the online purchase process:

  • Big box retailers like Target and Wal-Mart offer shoppers a familiar comfort.  They also provide consumers with a local presence to dispute product and billing issues.  This can be convenient and valuable if the customer service telephone line is not being helpful — simply walk into the store and speak with someone local and in person.
  • Big online retailers offer a tried and true experience. These household names like Amazon, Overstock, and Wayfair have not only been in the business for many years but process millions of transactions annually.  Their systems are designed for high volume. They are financially motivated to make sure purchases are secure. 
  • Other name brand retailers offer similar security, convenience and support as the big retailers.
  • Look for the little lock icon by the website address in the address bar of the web browser.  While it is easier than ever to set up a fraudulent website and enable these lock icons, it at a minimum provides some assurance that the data being sent from the computer to the retailer’s server is secure.

When dealing with a retailer that is unfamiliar consider these steps to minimize risk:

  • Use a credit card with a temporary or disposable number available from financial institutions.
  • Read the company’s “About Us”, “Contact Us” or similar page.  Look for a phone number (both toll free and local for extra confidence), real physical address (not just a P.O. box), and an email address.  Be extra careful of sites that only have a form asking for the visitor’s contact information but providing none of theirs.
  • Don’t let flashy web design fool you.  Reputable small local retailers may have built their site five years ago while a slick site built yesterday does not indicate any kind of security.  
  • Price is too good to be true.   There is a lot of competition out there and pricing loss leaders is an effective tactic. Also, we’ve all seen the stories once a year some retailer makes a pricing error causing a flash sale and they get tremendous free advertising by making the nightly news. However, especially with luxury brands, be very cautious if the price is greater than 50% off and the item isn’t clearly marketed as clearance, end of season, close out, or final mark down (liquidation) price.
  • Trust your gut.  Creating a fraudulent website today is easier than ever.  Websites with spelling mistakes, poor product pictures, and other signs might be enough to pass on whatever the item is and look for purchasing it elsewhere.

“Badges” that convey certification or trustworthiness can be valuable for new retailers but can also be easily forged.  Google no longer provides its trusted stores program. There are many others including well known organizations such as the Better Business Bureau.  Most importantly do not trust these at face value. Follow up with the certifying organization to ensure the retailer is actually certified.

Finally, be extra cautious with pop-up social retailers.  These companies pray on our impulses and emotions to get us to click through a transaction from an advertisement on social media feeds.  The goods are often gimicky like footie pajamas of our favorite major league sports teams. 

Following these recommendations will not provide a foolproof guarantee of a safe and secure holiday shopping season, but with these guidelines shoppers can be reasonably assured that they have done their best to protect themselves from online fraud.