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Tech Bytes: Holiday shopping tips to safely browse, buy 

HOLIDAY SHOPPING TIPS TO SAFELY BROWSE, BUY

Holiday shopping is expected to reach record levels as online shopping boosts revenue for companies across all industries and sizes. 

Annual holiday spending is approaching $1 trillion domestically, according to the National Retail Federation. Retailers are vying for a piece of the action, offering discounts and deals to entice online shoppers. Unfortunately, cybercriminals also want a piece of the action. 

John Joyce, co-owner of CRS Technology Consultants, appeared on ABC7 for a special Cyber Monday Tech Bytes segment. John’s security tips were aimed at Cyber Monday shoppers, but are relevant to anyone who shops online. 

“Black Friday and Cyber Monday are historically two of the biggest shopping days of the year,” John says. “We know it and the retailers know it. The problem is, the bad guys know it, too.” 

Forbes notes 20.8% of all retail purchases were expected to take place online in 2023. That number will grow to nearly one in four purchases by 2026. 

Online shopping involves far more than E-commerce hubs like Amazon, eBay and Etsy, or company websites like BestBuy.com or Walmart.com. Businesses can add E-commerce components to their website or social media channels and start selling products globally. 

What makes Cyber Monday a dangerous day for holiday shopping? 

At 130.7 million and 71.1 million shoppers, respectively, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are, by far, the two biggest shopping days of the year, according to the National Retail Federation. Retailers know shoppers will be out in full force those days. That’s why they offer huge sales and discounts galore. 

Scammers also know shoppers are revved up and ready to spend. The thrill of a good deal can be blinding, though. 

There are three Ps that savvy, safe shoppers will evaluate before making an online purchase. 

Prices 

A good holiday shopping deal is a discount of 5-10%. A great deal is generally 20-25% off. 

“When we’re talking about a laptop or TV that’s $1,000 or $2,000, that’s hundreds of dollars,” John says. 

If customers spot an iPhone 15, MacBook Air M2 or another newly released device advertised at half price, their scam alert radar should start buzzing. 

“A retailer is not going to sell a hot item at that much of a discount,” John says. “They’re not going to take a loss, so it’s probably too good to be true.” 

Products 

When stores offer discounts of 50% or higher, it’s usually for one of two reasons: 

  1. The manufacturer has released a newer version and stores are trying to clear shelf space. 
  1. The product has a poor consumer rating and stores cannot sell it at full price. 

Holiday shopping presents a challenge for gift-givers who aren’t “techies” or aware of specific makes and models. That’s especially true when it comes to electronics. Splashy advertisements encourage customers to “Buy Now,” touting that supplies are limited. Oftentimes, they prompt consumers to buy items without fully understanding what exactly they’re purchasing. Reading the fine print is a must when shopping online. 

“If you don’t know what to look for, you could easily pay top dollar prices for the new one and actually get the old one in the mail,” John says. 

Portal 

A company’s online portal is its website. Legitimate businesses have secure websites we know and trust. Scammers will create duplicate websites that are spitting images of the actual site, with perhaps a slight variation in the URL.  

Scammers create SEO-friendly websites that look appealing to online shoppers. They can feature product images and reviews, just like authentic websites. They also can contain links that take you to “deals” on what looks like Best Buy or Amazon’s website – with the logo and everything – but they’re fake pages. 

Shoppers can be so excited about the deal that they don’t notice the URL isn’t BestBuy.com, for instance, or even a secure site. 

“You have to know where you are online,” John says. 

Once you enter your credit card, gift card number or PayPal info, the scammers have everything they need.  

What are the hottest online shopping deals? 

The most popular online shopping deals typically involve electronics. This is especially true on Black Friday, Cyber Monday and throughout the holiday season. 

Three categories of electronics typically top holiday wish lists: 

General electronics: 

  • Televisions 
  • Laptops 
  • Tablets 
  • Gaming accessories 

‘Smart’ electronics: 

  • Thermostats  
  •  Appliances (laundry, dishwasher, coffee maker)  

Safety-related electronics: 

  • Apple AirTags  
  • Ring doorbells  

What online holiday shopping scams are most prevalent? 

Cybercriminals are using the same three strategies to scam customers that retailers rely on during the holiday season. 

  • Websites: Fake sites developed to resemble authentic pages of retailers. 
  • Text Messages: Spam texts that offer tremendous bargains if you click a link. 
  • Emails: Spam messages built to attract attention and drive traffic to fraudulent websites. 

“The bad guys are out there,” John notes. “They’re going to strike when the opportunity is the highest.”  

During the holiday season, consumers are flooded with sales and advertisements from businesses. Scammers are trying to blend in and hope their victims don’t notice something is awry. 

Now, the rise of artificial intelligence is helping cybercriminals become more sophisticated. 

“Almost every company you are doing business with online is tracking your movements on their website. It’s what they do. It’s how they sell what they’re selling to you,” John says. “When that tracking and ad data is leaked, now suddenly the bad guys have access to all this valuable information about what you were shopping for, where you were shopping, what your habits are so they can then craft those attacks in what we call a ‘spearphishing’ attack. They’re not just phishing; they’re targeting you with this information they have about you.” 

RELATED: Tech Bytes: Email scams get sophisticated with AI’s help 

A survey from the National Retail Federation found that 55% of holiday shoppers said they would like to receive gift cards as a present. This outpaced clothing, books/media, personal care items and experiences. 

Knowing this, many retailers offer special promotions during the holiday season. It’s common to see $10 bonus cards added if customers buy a $25 gift card. Online promotions featuring gift card BOGOs and half-off sales, though, should raise a red flag. 

“If you’re buying gift cards, for example, it doesn’t hurt to get into the car and just go buy them in person once in a while,” John says. 

Even then, make sure the PIN isn’t scratched off. Local criminals can obtain card numbers and PINs, and then spring into action once a customer activates that card. 

Final words of wisdom 

There are plenty of deals to be had during the holiday shopping season. Focus on trusted, established websites, preferably reputable companies that actually manufacture the product you want – not second-hand retailers. 

“Don’t just Google it and go to the one with the lowest price,” John cautions. “If the price is too good to be true, it probably is.” 

READ MORE: Tech Resources 

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