The following was published in today’s edition of Foster’s and Seacoast Sunday.
So Thanksgiving has come and gone, as has Small Business Saturday. Tomorrow is Cyber Monday. The deals keep coming and the enticement to shop online and retail is at its height for the year. So how do you ensure you shop safely? Here are a few recommendations, not just for the holiday season, but throughout the year.
When shopping retail, your largest risk is at checkout. Whether you are writing a check, using a debit or credit card, it’s important to know your risks and the technologies available to mitigate them. Checks are tough. Some people swear by them, others avoid them at all cost. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a check. Frank Abignale, the FBI security expert of “Catch Me If You Can” movie fame, never writes a check. He believes checks are the easiest transaction to forge and he would know. If you haven’t seen the movie about his story, you may want to watch it. His words carry the weight of experience and some hard lessons learned.
When it comes to debit and credit cards, Abignale recommends never using a debit card as it has direct access to your bank account. Instead, he advocates for using a credit card and paying it off every month. Now there’s the trick, paying it off every month. For many, this is easier said than done, but his point is well taken. Credit cards have consumer protections that safeguard you against fraudulent charges. Debit cards do not. Once the money is pulled from your bank account, it’s very difficult, if not impossible to recover.
Whichever type of card you use, be sure you use the chip feature and don’t swipe the card. Magnetic readers are easy to hack or replace with what’s called a skimmer. A skimmer reads the cards magnetic stripe, sends the payment information to a hacker while still passing the transaction through to the point of sale terminal where you swiped your card. It’s one of the most common forms of debit and credit card theft out there.
Several consumer advocacy and law enforcement agencies have warned of point of sale terminal hacking this holiday season. If a store you shop at has been hacked, even if their credit card machine itself has not been compromised, a hacker may still be able to grab your payment information. Chip technology safeguards against this by using on-chip encryption for your payment card data and each transaction done with the card. If a retailer is not accepting chip, tell them you have to shop elsewhere. There’s no reason not to and their credit card processors are charging them a higher fee for not using the chip.
Where you can, I also recommend using Apple Pay, Samsung Pay
, PayPal and similar payment services. Especially if all you have is a debit card, linking that card to these services will insert a layer of encryption and security to your transactions that the debit card alone cannot. These are more secure ways to pay and will help protect you, online and offline.
When shopping online, there is ample technology available to safeguard you. Be sure you take advantage of it. First and foremost, be sure you are only shopping at websites that have https and not just http. The “s” indicates the site is secured with secure socket layer encryption, or SSL. If a site is not SSL, everything you enter in to your browser is clearly available to anyone who may be intercepting your Internet traffic as it travels from your web browser to the site.
I also recommend not clicking on the millions of ads and links you receive in your email. Sophisticated hackers will impersonate legitimate companies and offers, in an effort to get you to click their link, which would bring you to a fake site, setup to steal your identity and payment data. Instead, just enter the site address in your browser and get to the site this way. Once on the site, search for the deal you are looking for. Chances are, if it’s a legitimate offer, you will be able to find it right from the website’s homepage.
A few other considerations for shopping safely online include using a VPN and privacy mode in your web browser. A Virtual Private Network connection to servers on the Internet masks your online activity for prying eyes. If you connect securely to a company network for work, chances are you may be doing so via a VPN. The same principal holds true for a VPN for Internet access. Think of the Internet as a four lane highway and think of a VPN as a tunnel that gets placed over one of the lanes and that is the lane you travel in. No one can see where you are going and where you enter and exit the highway. This is what a VPN does for your Internet use. Don’t use a free VPN as you get what you pay for. No one is so altruistic that they put this technology out there for free. They are capturing something of value from you. Instead, subscribe to a reputable VPN service if you decide to go this route. It’s well worth the modest cost.
Finally, consider using privacy mode in your web browser. All browsers have this and it does a decent job of masking your online activity, avoiding ad trackers and cookies, technologies that make you wonder how that ad showed up in your browser for something you were thinking of shopping for. When you want to be sure what you do online remains private, privacy mode is the way to go.
I hope I haven’t scared you away from shopping this holiday season. That is not my intent. Instead, I hope I have given you some good ideas to protect your identity and your bank account this holiday season and throughout the year. Happy shopping!