‘Tis the season when even those who know a thing or two about Internet scams tend to let down their guard in the face of an eye-popping discount or the stress of last-minute holiday shopping. So here’s a quick refresher course on how to make it through the next few weeks without getting snookered online.
Adopting a shopping strategy of simply buying from the online merchant with the lowest advertised prices can be a bit like playing Russian Roulette with your wallet, for the simple reason that there are tons of completely fake e-commerce sites out there looking to separate the unwary from their credit card details.
Even people who shop mainly at big-name online stores can get scammed if they’re not wary of too-good-to-be-true offers. For example, KrebsOnSecurity got taken for hundreds of dollars just last year after trying to buy a pricey Sonos speaker from an established Amazon merchant who was selling it new and unboxed at huge discount.
I later received an email from the seller, who said his Amazon account had been hacked and abused by scammers to create fake sales. Amazon ultimately refunded the money, but if this happens to you around the holidays it could derail plans to get all your shopping done before the expected gift-giving day arrives.
Here are some other safety and security tips to keep in mind when shopping online:
-WHEN IN DOUBT, CHECK ‘EM OUT: If you don’t know much about the online merchant that has the item you wish to buy, take a few minutes to investigate its reputation. After all, it’s not uncommon for bargain basement phantom Web sites to materialize during the holiday season, and then vanish forever not long afterward.
If you’re buying from an online store that is brand new, the risk that you will get scammed increases significantly. How do you know the lifespan of a site selling that must-have gadget at the lowest price? One easy way to get a quick idea is to run a basic WHOIS search on the site’s domain name. The more recent the site’s “created” date, the more likely it is a phantom store.
-USE A CREDIT CARD: It’s nearly impossible for consumers to tell how secure a main street or online merchant is, and safety seals or attestations that something is “hacker safe” are a guarantee of nothing. In my experience, such sites are just as likely to be compromisedas e-commerce sites without these dubious security seals.
No, it’s best just to shop as if they’re all compromised. With that in mind, if you have the choice between using a credit or debit card, shop with your credit card.
Sure, the card associations and your bank are quick to point out that you’re not liable for fraudulent charges that you report in a timely manner, whether it’s debit or a credit card. But this assurance may ring hollow if you wake up one morning to find your checking accounts emptied by card thieves after shopping at a breached merchant with a debit card.
Who pays for the fees levied against you by different merchants when your checks bounce? You do. Does the bank reimburse you when your credit score takes a ding because your mortgage or car payment was late? Don’t hold your breath.
-PADLOCK, SCHMADLOCK: For years, consumers have been told to look for the padlock when shopping online. Maybe this was once sound advice. But to my mind, the “look for the lock” mantra has created a false sense of security for many Internet users, and has contributed to a dangerous and widespread misunderstanding about what the lock icon is really meant to convey.
To be clear, you absolutely should run away from any e-commerce site that does not include the padlock (i.e., its Web address does not begin with “https://”). But the presence of a padlock icon next to the Web site name in your browser’s address bar does not mean the site is legitimate. Nor is it any sort of testimonial that the site has been security-hardened against intrusion from hackers.
The https:// part of the address merely signifies that the data being transmitted back and forth between your browser and the site is encrypted and can’t be read by third parties. Even so, anti-phishing company PhishLabs found in a survey last year that more than 80% of respondents believed the green lock indicated that a website was either legitimate and/or safe.
Now that anyone can get SSL certificates for free, phishers and other scammers that ply their trade via fake Web sites are starting to up their game. In December 2017, PhishLabs estimated that a quarter of all phishing Web sites were outfitting their scam pages with SSL certificates to make them appear more trustworthy. According to PhishLabs, roughly half of all phishing sites now feature the padlock.
-CHECK THE SHIPPING
Often times, items that are advertised at steeper discounts than other online stores make up for it by charging way more than normal for shipping and handling.
Be careful what you agree to: Check to make sure you know how long the item will take to be shipped, and that you understand the store’s return policies. Also, keep an eye out for hidden surcharges, and be wary of blithely clicking “ok” during the checkout process.