Online shopping grows increasingly popular each year. The holiday season has particularly noticed its impact; Black Friday through Cyber Monday marks the busiest online shopping period of the entire year, and the boost in online shopping continues throughout the holiday season.

Unfortunately, the ease and convenience of online shopping make the holiday season a perfect time for cybercriminals to take advantage of unsuspecting online shoppers. Three common ways that attackers take advantage of online shoppers are:

  • Creating fraudulent sites and email messages
  • Intercepting insecure transactions
  • Targeting vulnerable computers

Fortunately, many cyber threats are avoidable. When you shop in person, it's a habit to bring reusable bags, lock the car, and put away your cash or credit card when you’re done with your purchase. Similar habits can protect you, your purchases, and your identity when you're shopping online during the holiday season and year-round:

  1. Shop reliable websites, and get there safely. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Don't be fooled by the lure of great discounts on less-than-reputable websites or fake companies. Use the sites of retailers you know and trust, and get to their sites by directly typing a known, trusted URL into the address bar instead of clicking on a link.
  2. Beware of seasonal scams. Fake package tracking emails, fake e-cards, fake charity donation scams, and emails requesting that you confirm purchase information are particularly common during this time of year. 
  3. Conduct research. There are a lot of fake and malicious companies out there. When considering a new website or online company for your holiday purchases, read reviews and see if other customers have had positive or negative experiences with them. Also, verify that the website has a legitimate mailing address and a phone number for sales or support-related questions. If the site looks suspicious, call and speak to a human.
  4. Always think twice before clicking on links or opening attachments - even if they appear to be from people you know, legitimate organizations, your favorite retailers, or even your bank. Messages can easily be faked, so only open known, expected URLs and attachments. When in doubt, throw it out!
  5. Keep clean machines. Before searching for that perfect gift, make sure your device, apps, browser, and anti-virus/anti-malware software are patched and up-to-date.
  6. Protect your passwords. Make them long and strong, never reveal them to anyone, and use multi-factor authentication (MFA, also called two-factor or two-step authentication) wherever possible.
  7. Look for https:// (not http) in the address bar before using your credit card online.
  8. Check your credit card and bank statements regularly. These are often the first indicators that your account information or identity has been stolen. If there is a discrepancy, report it immediately.
    • Stay safe with text alerts. Most banking apps and sites provide the option to set alerts, such as a text message for every transaction over a specified dollar amount or a daily text summary of your current balance. Set these alerts and use them to spot signs of unusual activity. 
    • Check your credit report annually. The Federal Trade Commission provides information here about getting free credit reports and what to do if you find discrepancies.
  9. Secure your home wi-fi. To prevent eavesdroppers and data thieves, enable strong encryption on your home wireless network - WPA2 is recommended. Set a strong password (12 characters or more), change your network’s name (SSID) from the default to something not obviously belonging to you, and limit who has administrative access to your home network. Finally, log into your wireless router periodically to check for software updates (many home routers don’t auto-update.)
  10. Get savvy about wi-fi hotspots and public computers. Consider all Wi-Fi hotspots and public computers vulnerable, even if they appear to be safe. Limit the type of business you conduct on them, including logging into key accounts (i.e. email, banking) and shopping. And set your devices to “ask” before joining new wireless networks so you don’t unknowingly connect to an insecure or fraudulent hot spot.

Additional ways to protect yourself online:

  • Secure all of your devices with a complex password. Having separate passwords for every account helps to thwart cybercriminals. At a minimum, separate your work/University and personal accounts and make sure that your critical accounts have strong passwords - and multi-factor authentication, if possible. Set a timeout that locks your device after a period of inactivity, and be sure it requires a password or other authentication to resume activity.
  • Don't ever give out your financial information or personal information via email or text.
  • Pay with a credit card, not a debit card. Credit cards offer protections that may reduce your liability if your information is used improperly. Debit cards may not have the same level of protection.
    • A related tip is to use a separate credit card only for your digital transactions. While this won’t prevent theft, it will limit your exposure and make online fraud easier to detect.
  •  Only use apps from known, reputable sources. Less reputable apps can include malicious software (malware) designed to steal credit card data and other sensitive information. And keep your apps up-to-date.
  • Don't respond to pop-ups. Ignore pop-up offers and deals. Just close them. Don’t respond, click on the links, or call the phone numbers. Similarly, don’t respond to pop-ups saying that you need to buy anti-virus software or software to “clean your infected computer.” These are all scams.
  • Don't auto-save your passwords or credit card numbers. The inconvenience of having to re-enter the information is insignificant compared to the amount of time you would spend trying to repair the loss of your stolen information.
  • Disable Bluetooth, wireless, and Near Field Communications (NFC) when not in use to reduce the risk of your data being intercepted by thieves. Some stores and other locations also look for devices with wireless or Bluetooth turned on to track your movements while you are within range.
  • Review privacy policies. Review the privacy policy for the website/merchant you are visiting. Know what information the merchant is collecting about you, how it will be stored, how it will be used, and if it will be shared with others.

Follow our hashtag #hstUCinfosec for additional holiday shopping tips and tricks to keep you and your personal data safe. Follow our social media @UCSBInfoSec on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn for more cybersecurity resources.