While online shopping has made purchasing Christmas gifts decidedly easier, it’s done the same for cyber thieves waiting to steal consumers’ identities, according to experts.
By using precautions and common sense, placing orders for goods online doesn’t have to pose a risk to the shopper.
Online shopping is one of the fastest growing identity crimes, said Vinayak Tanksale, a cyber security expert at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. He said if it’s not done correctly online shoppers can become easy pickings for identity thieves.
His first piece of advice: Shop only from reputable websites operated by well-known, well-established companies. “As long as you know the businesses, you’re generally okay,” he said.
But when sizing up a merchant’s email offer or pop-up notice advertising a sale, carefully check the company’s online address. If it begins with “http,” and not “https,” don’t bite. Tanksale said an “s” at the end signifies a secure sight.
“Completely stay away if it doesn’t say ‘s’,” he said. “That’s not even a gray area. If it doesn’t start with ‘https’ do not even bother. That’s my number one rule.”
Avoid online sales with unfamiliar businesses as well, Tanksale said. And if an online sales ad provides a link to the company’s website, don’t click on it. The link could take the consumer to a completely different website for the purpose of “phishing” their personal information.
“I know it is a pain, but instead of actually clicking on the link, either type in the link yourself or paste it on the browser,” he said. To be completely safe, do the same even if the advertising company is well-known and considered reputable, he added. Or go directly to the company’s website.
And during a one-time shopping excursion on an unfamiliar website, turn down the company’s offer to save credit card information for future use. “It’s a better safe than sorry approach,” Tanksale said.
If a consumer has both a cell phone and a personal computer available for online shopping, it’s better to use the computer, Tanksale said. “I’m not saying shopping on a phone is bad, but given a choice use a computer. There are ways hackers can trick people on mobile phones,” he said.
Big Commerce, a website tracking spending across the U.S., reports that 51 percent of Americans prefer to shop online. In fact, 96 percent of Americans with Internet access have purchased products online in their lifetime, 80 percent just within the past month.
And according to Javelin Strategy and Research, a California-based research advisory firm, 15.4 million people were victims of identity fraud in 2016, to the tune of $16 billion. Last year also saw a 40 percent increase in card-not-present fraud – making purchases by credit card over the telephone or online. Cyber thieves also steal logged-in information to access the consumer’s accounts.
Tanksale said a smart hacker can easily fool trusting people or those ignorant of online scams.
“They are dependent on people essentially being gullible and not being aware. Once your identity is stolen it’s a pain to clean it up,” he said.
Cleveland FBI office spokesperson Vicki Anderson said a basic tip for online shoppers is, “If the deal is too good to be true, it probably is.” She said those fake deals often come in email advertising, and once the consumer clicks on the accompanying link “they’ve hacked your computer. They’ve got you now, so you can expect financial difficulty and your credit compromised.”
False advertisements can be detected by checking for easily-overlooked but deliberate misspellings or extra periods. “Hackers are notorious for changing one specific thing, and you don’t notice it. Be very cautious; don’t click on those links,” Anderson said.
She said consumers who realize they’ve fallen for a scam should regularly check their bank account for its accuracy. “If you see something you didn’t purchase take steps to protect yourself immediately. They can damage accounts quickly,” she said.
Cyber thieves count on consumers being naive and in a hurry, Anderson said.
” You see a good deal, you click on it, and you only have a little time, you put that information in, and you have a whole world of trouble to deal with,” she said.
Richard Kilgour, Fulton County Sheriff Office 911 coordinator, said the sheriff receives calls about scams once or twice during Christmas each year. He said the sheriff’s website tries to inform the county’s residents about online scams “(but) they don’t think it’s going to happen to them or they’re too trusting.”
If a person falls victim, they should call their financial institution and have their credit card either canceled or flagged for bad activity, Kilgour said. They also should watch both their bank account and credit report.
Tanksale recommends taking advantage of a free credit report everyone is entitled to once a year.
“Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes I’ve seen. One in five people’s identities will be stolen in their lifetime,” he said.
According to Anderson, treading carefully online, especially when shopping, is simply common sense.
“The internet’s a wonderful thing, but it opens you up to a whole world. So be vigilant,” she said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.