During the holiday season, while making purchases online be sure to take the necessary steps to protect yourself. Use security software and firewalls to keep your information secure. Anza Valley Outlook/Courtesy photo

Rebecca Gramuglia

Special to Anza Valley Outlook

With Black Friday deals being announced early, it is important to practice safe internet habits as many head online to purchase gifts this holiday season.

And according to a recent survey from TopCashback.com, the USA’s most generous cashback site, 88% of Americans will be doing the majority of their holiday shopping online.

Here are 10 tips to help safely navigate online shopping this holiday season.

1. Stay away from suspicious websites.

If you are looking for the hottest toy of the season, you may come across a variety of sites including some you have never shopped at before; however, if you see one that seems questionable, has an outdated design and/or has multiple pop-up windows, it may not be a legitimate retailer site. Refrain from making any purchases on these types of sites to ensure that your personal information does not get compromised. To make sure you’re always shopping from the legitimate and verified site, either bookmark or favorite the page so you can safely access it every time.

In addition to avoiding suspicious looking sites, make sure your site has either a small lock icon in the corner of your URL field and/or says “HTTPS” – emphasis on the ‘s.’ This layer of security is essential when online shopping and sharing personal information. If the site is not secured or the URL only features “HTTP,” your transaction may be compromised.

2. Avoid unsecure networks and devices.

Any time you purchase something online make sure you take the necessary steps to protect yourself. Use security software and firewalls to keep your information secure. If you’re out and about, avoid public computers and connecting to public Wi-Fi networks to make sure no one can potentially access your information. To keep your information secure, it is important to regularly change your password – usually every three to six months – to reduce the chances of someone accessing your personal profiles, data, credit card numbers, etc. If you must shop online on public Wi-Fi, use a VPN, a virtual private network.

3. Look out for phishing emails.

While you’re scrolling through your email this holiday season for any coupons or promotions, be wary of any enticing subject lines from unfamiliar senders in your inbox. Clicking on emails from unknown senders can infect your computer with viruses and malware. You can avoid them by deleting any suspicious messages and be on the lookout for emails disguised as if they came directly from family members, co-workers, etc.

If the message looks strange or has any grammatical errors, double-check the sender address to see if it is actually from that person. More often than not, your gut feeling is usually right, so delete the message immediately if it is actually not from a person you know.

Look out for scams via text. You may also find yourself in a similar situation by receiving texts from unknown numbers about a package you’re supposedly receiving. Again, don’t click on any links and delete the message especially if you have not signed up for text alerts or are not expecting a package. Keep in mind that criminals use this scheme to get you to provide personal information. You can report any phishing emails and texts to the Federal Trade Commission.

4. Pay with protection.

Ensure your online safety by not only logging onto a secure site and network, but also by making purchases online with either a credit card or through PayPal. By using these payment methods, you’ll have an added layer of consumer protection that can guard you against fraud.

Don’t get a false sense of security, however. If you notice any suspicious activity on your credit card, contact your provider immediately. Sign-up for different security alerts to get notified when your card gets used without it being present, for purchases over a certain amount and more.

5. Beware of gift scams.

Around the holidays you may see gift-exchanges pop up on social media where you pay a small amount to purchase one gift and in return, you get lots of gifts from strangers. Avoid these at all costs. These scams are not only illegal, but you are also distributing your personal information to people you don’t know. Plus, you’ll also likely lose the money you put in and you won’t receive anything in return.

6. Dodge any sites that accept gift cards as a form of payment.

Gift cards are a great present to give around the holidays. But did you know they are also a scammer’s favorite way to steal money? Be cautious of any websites or phone representatives that only take gift cards from other retailers for payment. Any merchant who limits your payment options to gift cards only is usually trouble.

7. Don’t give out more information than you need to.

Here’s a rule of thumb to always follow: no shopping website will ever need personal details like your Social Security number. If you’re asked details you don’t feel comfortable sharing, call the customer service line and ask whether you can supply some other identifying information – or walk away.

8. Be wary of dream deals.

If a website offers something that looks too good to be true – like rock-bottom prices on the new iPhone 12 – then it most likely is. Before you purchase a once-in-a-lifetime deal, use similar sites to compare prices and pictures of the item. Hard-to-believe low prices should raise a red flag about the legitimacy and authenticity of the website.

9. Do your research on new merchants.

Before you shop at a new online retailer, do your research. Does the merchant have complaints at the Better Business Bureau or poor customer reviews? Does the company have a verified social media account? And don’t forget to check the business’s contact information. If there’s no email address, phone number or address for a brick-and-mortar location that could be a red flag that it’s a fake company.

10. Be smart about downloading apps.

Similar to “phishing” emails that look like they’re from legitimate stores, be wary of fake consumer apps. To avoid compromising your private information, do your research and make sure to read comments and reviews on the Apple App Store and Google’s Play store before downloading. And pay close attention to the access and permission that the app asks for.

Rebecca Gramuglia is a consumer expert at TopCashback.com.

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