Only about 16% of shoppers are planning to visit stores in-person this Black Friday. Instead, most shoppers are planning to go online to score deals on their holiday gifts.
But while online shopping helps you skip the crowds at the mall, it can be a cybersecurity minefield. After the online holiday shopping season is over, there is typically a significant increase in data breaches, says Gal Ringel, cybersecurity expert and CEO of Mine. Up to 30% to 50% of the annual average of data breaches happen in November and December alone, he says.
"The holidays are a bonanza for cybercriminals," says Dave Baggett, co-founder and CEO of anti-phishing start-up Inky. "People are buying a lot of things over a short period of time, and they are hurried about it. This presents opportunities for crooks."
Here's how to best protect yourself while shopping this holiday season.
1. Don't click links in emails
Emails are a particularly common way for fraudsters to gain access to your credit card information or identity. Hackers send what's called a phishing email, in which they copy a store's sale or discount email and include a link to a false portal asking for your info.
"Retailers have been hit hard by the pandemic, and will likely send out even more emails showcasing their discounts and offers, which can be easily spoofed to trick consumers," says Tony Pepper, CEO of cybersecurity firm Egress.
A quick and easy way to avoid falling for a phishing scam is to check the sender's details carefully and hover over links before you click. "If you're still not sure, you can always reach out to the retailer via their website, to check that the email you received is genuine," Pepper says.
2. Don't open attachments from retailers
Just as you should avoid clicking on email links, don't open attachments from retailers. "Retailers won't hide deals in attachments — that's where attackers hide malware," says Michael Madon, senior vice president and general manager of security awareness for Mimecast and a former cybersecurity director for the U.S. Treasury.
Cyber criminals aren't only impersonating retailers, either. You could get a fake email that seems to be from a major shipping company like UPS, FedEx or DHL. Instead of clicking on a tracking number listed in an email or opening up an attachment, go directly to ups.com or fedex.com to check the tracking number.
3. Avoid pop-ups and ads
Malware and viruses aren't just spread via email. They can follow you around the Internet in the form of pop-ups and advertisements — these are actually referred to as malvertising, or malicious advertising.
These types of ads can send you to sites that ask for your information, but they can also infect your device with a wide variety of harmful programming such as adware, spyware and ransomware. This is a form of malware that locks up specific files or your entire computer and forces you to pay to get access back.
"If a deal is legitimate, it will be on the company's site. Pop-ups are an easy way for cybercriminals to lure you in," Madon says.
4. Beware of e-skimmers
Card skimming has been happening for years. It's a scam that typically happens at gas stations or ATMs, where a criminal installs a device that gathers credit card numbers and information when you swipe your card. That practice has gone digital, the FBI says. Cyber thieves can install malicious code on a retailer's website to gather credit card data when you check out.
To protect yourself from this practice, you can pay using a third party such as PayPal, Venmo or Amazon, if the retailer allows it, so the store never actually has your credit card number. Or you can create a virtual credit card through sites like Privacy.com, or on your card issuer's website, that provide temporary numbers so your information stays secure.
5. Use a credit card
Many experts recommend that you use credit cards instead of debit cards. That's because the Fair Credit Billing Act makes it so consumers are only liable for up to $50 in fraudulent charges. And many major credit card companies, including American Express, Discover, Mastercard and Visa, offer "zero liability" policies, so you don't have to pay for any fraud.
Save your debit card for taking out cash, Ally Bank recommends. Not just during the holidays, but year-round. Also, make sure to avoid suspicious ATMs. If the ATM looks broken, or anything on the front of the machine appears dislodged or jerry-rigged, it could mean that someone has installed a card-skimming machine.
Looking for a new credit card this holiday season? Check out CNBC Select's roundup of the best cards for Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping.
6. Use a secure network to shop
More than three quarters of Americans, 76%, have used public Wi-Fi to access sensitive information, according to a survey last year by cybersecurity company Bullguard. But with all the bad bots and cyber criminals lurking during the holiday season, it can be a particularly dangerous time of year.
When shopping online, make sure you're using a private Wi-Fi connection or your smartphone's cellular network to browse the internet. Public Wi-Fi networks are notoriously insecure and could open you up to malware or hacking.
"Without proper network precautions, the hacker sitting a few seats down at your local Starbucks could sneak into your device and watch you input your credit card information," Madon says.
If you absolutely need to use public Wi-Fi, use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, that will encrypt your browsing history and activity. Hotspot Shield Free is a free VPN that will allow you to connect up to five devices from one account. If you're willing to pay, experts recommend ExpressVPN, which has packages starting at about $100 a year.
7. Be suspicious of free offers
During the holidays, Baggett says there's an "explosion" of survey and gift card scams. These are generally emails that supposedly offer you payments or gift cards in exchange for taking surveys.
Instead, when the user clicks through, they end up on websites that may look legitimate and ask you for your credit card information or Amazon account credentials "so they can pay you." Yet when you type your credentials in this site, you're giving them directly to the attacker.
These types of emails may also contain a common technique Baggett calls "hidden text." Normally invisible to you, this is text scammers put in to confuse the mail protections that Microsoft, Google and others use to try to protect you.
8. Diversify your passwords
Almost half of Americans, 53%, use the same passwords over and over again, according to identity company SecureAuth. But cyber thieves can use a stolen password to try to break into other accounts and sites that may expose your personal data.
This is especially common during the holiday shopping season. "Phishing attempts can often be disguised as sign-ups for retail rewards programs," Madon says. "If you take the offer, use a password that you haven't used before," he recommends.
For a more long-term solution, consider getting a password manager like Dashlane (free limited version, unlimited password plans starting at $4.99 a month). These programs will automatically generate unique, secure passwords for all your accounts and remember them for you.
9. Monitor your accounts
Throughout the holiday season, keep a close eye on your bank and credit card accounts. "Often, criminals will make small charges using bot technology to see if the charge will go through before making larger purchases," Pavan Thatha, head of bot management at Radware, tells CNBC Make It.
To help protect your identity, set up alerts and monitoring — either with your bank or an outside app such as IdentityForce — that will let you know if any suspicious activity occurs. Also, keep a close eye on your annual credit report for any new accounts or queries you didn't initiate.
10. Beware gift card scams
A gift card can be the perfect holiday gift for that hard-to-please person on your list. In fact, 35% of consumers plan to purchase a lot more online gift cards this year, McAfee finds.
But scams tied to these cards are becoming increasingly popular. One popular strategy used by criminals is to scan or write down the card number in the store, draining the funds before they are even gifted.
When buying physical gift cards off the shelf, carefully inspect it to make sure there's no tampering and you cannot see the code or PIN. Many experts recommend buying electronic gift cards online.
"At the end of the day, bad guys like to exploit our holiday spirit and use it against us," Baggett says. "Sadly, we need to be more vigilant this time of year than at any other."
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