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Online shopping: How to protect your money and identity from criminals

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Online shopping: How to protect your money and identity from criminals
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There is no doubt online shopping has become an increasingly popular — and very often the primary — option for people looking for deals, discounts and convenience. In fact, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, 79% of Americans say they shop online.

And unfortunately, as the online shopping industry continues to evolve, so do the scams.

The sophistication of Internet scams is getting better and better, and if you’re one of the millions of people making frequent purchases online, it’s important that you take certain steps in order to protect yourself and your wallet.

Read more: Online Shopping Guide: How to get the best price possible

How to avoid scammers while shopping online

Make sure your computer and other devices are secure

When an update is available on your phone, tablet or other device, make sure to install it —software updates typically include any security flaws or potential problems.

Also, make sure your device is free of malware before making any online purchases. Check out our Virus, Spyware and Malware Protection Guide for links to free protection ptions. 

Mobile security

If you’re looking for mobile security, try a freemium service called MyLookout.com that offers protection for smartphones running Android, Blackberry or Windows. If you have an iPhone, make sure your device is always running on the latest software. Apple frequently makes updates available, which often fix any potential security issues that could put you at risk. So make sure to always install the latest updates. 

Beware of fake email scams

Shopping online typically involves email confirmations related to any purchases you make, and scammers use several different email scams to trick consumers into handing over their personal information. Plus, record online shopping means a lot of packages are being shipped, and fake package tracking emails are a very easy way for scammers to steal consumers’ information.

Here’s how to spot a fake package tracking email.

If you receive an email that turns out to be a scam and you click on any links provided in the email, what often happens is a virus is immediately loaded on to your computer or other device. And then… nothing happens. You forget all about it while the virus lurks in the background — capturing your every keystroke to get access to things like your username and password for sensitive financial accounts.

How thieves disguise scam emails as legit notifications

Thieves have found ways to make email scams look like they’re coming from legitimate groups and companies, including charities, retailers, credit card companies, banks, shipping companies (UPS, FedEx) and more.

So if you receive an email you weren’t expecting — or even a “confirmation” email you were expecting — do not click on any of the links provided in the email. The safest way to find out if the information is legitimate is to open a separate browser, or even use a different device, and sign in to the company’s official website directly.

You can also call the company directly to confirm any information that was sent to you via email.

After you make a purchase online and get a tracking number for the shipment, you should only track your package by signing in to the company’s website directly and entering the tracking number there. Never click on any links sent via email — as these scams are popping up more and more every day.

Watch out for these email subject lines that are being used in popular scams:

  • ‘You have a New encrypted message from your bank’
  • ‘USPS is notifying you that your package is available for pickup’
  • ‘You have received your payroll invoice’
  • ‘Your FED TAX payment was rejected’
  • ‘Advisors Online Documents Activated’
  • ‘Transaction notification from your bank’
  • ‘Docusign To all Employees – Confidential Message’
  • ‘INCOMING FAX REPORT’

Never shop online using public Wi-Fi

Scammers can easily steal your information when you’re using an unsecured network. If you use a public computer, make sure to always completely log out of every website and the computer itself. When it comes to using free Wi-Fi networks, never sign in to any of your accounts that contain sensitive personal information, such as your bank account or any account that contains your bank, debit or credit card information.

Here are more tips to help you avoid scammers on public Wi-Fi.

Beware of fake charities

Unfortunately, scammers are preying on consumers who are looking for, or willing to take part in, charitable giving opportunities. These scams are often presented via email or social media posts. Before donating to any charity you aren’t already familiar with, check to make sure it’s legitimate using Give.org or charitynavigator.org.

Read more: 13 ways you may be exposing yourself to fraud

Shop only on secure, legitimate websites

When you’re shopping online, make sure you’re on a secure site — which is marked by https:// (notice the s). Scammers are not only preying on online shoppers in general, but they’re also specifically targeting shoppers looking for ‘incredible’ and ‘won’t last’ deals.

Read more: Never order anything from these online retailers

If you see a great deal that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Do a little research and make sure the website or company has a physical address or phone number you can verify. You can also check with the Better Business Bureau for more information on specific companies. Another option is an add-on to your browser from sites like Web Of Trust that can help you verify questionable websites.

How to tell if you’re about to do business with a fake retail website

Beware of “incredible” deals on social media

If you see any posts on Facebook with language like ‘OMG! CHECK OUT THIS GREAT DEAL!’ — that’s a sign it’s probably not a great deal. You never know when your friends’ accounts have been compromised, so posts offering great deals may be coming from friends’ accounts by way of scammers.

There has also been a recent rise in retailers that offer super discounted prices on Facebook. They look like great deals in the photos, but when you receive the item in the mail, it doesn’t look anything like that great promotional photo you saw on Facebook.

Here’s how to spot a fake offer on Facebook.

Beware of fake shopping apps

Just in time for the holiday shopping season, hundreds of fake retail and product apps have found their way into Apple’s App Store recently — enticing iPhone users with all kinds of fake deals, discounts and offers.

And it’s not just Apple users who are at risk, shoppers need to take caution when downloading any app that asks for your personal information, especially credit card or bank account info.

Scammers can do a lot of damage with these types of fake apps — not only can they steal the cash you hand over, but they can also use your personal information to make more fraudulent charges, open accounts in your name and do other things that can destroy your financial life.

So when it comes to protecting your information and money, there are a few important things to keep in mind!

  • If you don’t recognize the company name, research the app and company before you download it: Doing a quick search online can help you spot a potentially fake app. Just search the name of the app, the company name and ‘reviews,’ and that should give you some answers.
  • If an app appears to be a retailer’s official app, check the company’s website before you download it: Before you download what appears to be an official app, check out the company’s website to find out if they even have an app, and if they do, follow the direct link on the company’s website. Taking a few minutes to do this can save you a lot of wasted money!

Check your credit card and bank statements daily

Checking your bank statements daily not only allows you to keep up with your purchases and current balance, but it also allows you to check for any transactions that don’t look familiar. Here’s more on why you should be checking every day.

Most important tip: Never shop online with a debit card!

Debit cards are full of hidden dangers to your wallet! And if thieves get their hands on your debit card/checking account information, you’re in big trouble

If your credit card is compromised, the harm to you is relatively small. You contact the issuer to report false charges and you may have to do some paperwork, but no money leaves your hands. With debit card fraud, however, there is money that leaves your hands.You have to fight to get your own money back, and unfortunately, it’s now taking longer and longer to get that money back — if ever.

Read more: This is the only safe way to use a debit card

Plus, if your bank account is emptied by a thief who stole your debit card information, that could really mess you up when it comes to any monthly payments that are counting on that money — resulting in bounced checks and/or overdrawing your account.

Pros of credit cards: What makes them a safer option for online shopping

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Alex Thomas Sadler About the author:
Alex is the Managing Editor of Clark.com and host of Common Cents, a series that makes money simple. By breaking down complicated concepts, Alex shows you how to better understand your money and make smarter decisions — so you can take control of your own life and future! Learn more here.
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