As Americans spend billions on holiday shopping this month, online security experts say a little caution can go a long way when it comes to avoiding identity theft.
“In general online shopping is good. It’s safe for the most part, but it’s the safest when you initiate the contact, when you log onto a known website,” said Rick Avery, president of Boston-based Securitas Security Systems.
Directly visiting trusted, reputable online retailers is just one way to attempt to avoid the cyber criminals who try to steal sensitive information from vulnerable computers and unsuspecting consumers.
“There is a risk in commerce …” said Sam Ransbotham, an information systems professor at Boston College. “There is also a risk from walking around with a wad of cash. We’ve got years and years of experience walking around with wads of cash that we just don’t have with these newer mechanisms.”
Purchases at brick-and-mortar stores aren’t immune to data breaches either. Last year, hackers stole data from 40 million credit cards from Target, while cyber thieves got information from 56 million credit cards from Home Depot earlier this year.
To reduce the chances of fraud, Avery advises that shoppers be wary of offers sent via email. Criminals, he said, may send legitimate-looking emails that appear to be from online merchants or banks. Rather than clicking on a link in an email, he recommends directly typing the website address into your browser.
“One of the most dangerous ways people get involved with credit card fraud or theft on the Internet is they get emailed a link offering 50 percent off, or saying it’s from the bank, and it’s actually a false website made to look like the authentic website,” he said.
Cyber criminals can use fraudulent websites to gather financial information from a person or install malware on their computers.
“If you’re shopping around and find an extra, extra really good deal, that might be the online equivalent to buying cheap speakers out of the back of a truck,” Ransbotham said. “If it’s too good to be true, it is.”
Avery also recommends using credit cards or one-time use credit cards instead of debit cards.
“Some banks have protections on a debit card, but not all do at the point of an ATM,” Avery said. “Usually, your debit card is tied to your other banking accounts, and it’s a lot more difficult to get your money back. It may be weeks before you get your money back.”
In some cases, a victim might never get that money back.