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Holiday shopping is in full force – ’tis the season to be shopping, some would say. Unfortunately, during seasonal times such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, while we are preparing to spend time with family and friends, we must be vigilant when shopping and doing holiday business online. Malicious cyber actors know that e-commerce increases significantly during the holiday seasons, and as a result, they increase their malicious activities where they become laser-focused on stealing money, identities and literally anything that they can monetize.

Fortunately, times have gotten better, and it is harder for cybercriminals to do their harm as compared to, say, the early 2000s. Nonetheless, holiday shoppers who are prudent and who practice safe online shopping habits can reduce their chances of cyber theft.

Here are a few tips online shoppers can use to help safeguard their personal and financial information:

1) Keep your operating system and third-party software up to date

This cannot be said enough. A first line of defense for keeping your information safe is to keep your computers and other devices such as tablets and smartphones updated by applying the latest patches.

2) Use virtual credit cards

Virtual credit cards are provided by various banking and credit card companies. These types of cards might vary in how they work, but in essence, most of them provide a mechanism for linking random credit card numbers to your primary account. For example, a vendor can issue you a virtual card with a card number that can be used once. You then use this card for an online purchase without having to worry about the site storing your primary card information.

Here are links to a few vendors that provide some sort of virtual credit cards.

3) Monitoring and alerting

You should monitor your account statements thoroughly during the holiday seasons. Scams and cyber thefts increase during these times, and even if you are prudent, your data can still make it into the hands of cyber thieves. Many banking and credit card vendors allow you to set up alerts based on various parameters. Some allow alerts for “card not present” transactions, such as when your card is used in an online purchase. This is a very handy alert that allows you to be highly proactive in monitoring your various accounts. These settings depend on the banking or credit card vendor. You can review their available settings and configure them to your liking.

4) Safe surfing

Public wireless communications such as open WiFi hotspots are abundant these days, and although they are very convenient, they are also risky. Open WiFi hotspots allow anyone to connect, which means those pesky cybercriminals can easily connect and potentially tap into your personal communications. Try to limit your use of open WiFi to just basic browsing and refrain from any online commerce or other important activities such as checking email while connected to an open WiFi hotspot.

5) Use a VPN

The previous tip is a tough one. After all, most of us are addicted to free and open WiFi, especially when we are out and about. So, this next tip lets us alleviate the issues with tip #4. Virtual Private Network (VPN) service providers allow you to connect to a network where the communications between your laptop or other devices are encrypted while in transit over the open WiFi network.

6) Use HTTPS

Anytime you shop online, make sure you are connecting to the site using HTTPS. This ensures that you have a secure, encrypted connection between your browser and the vendor. Note that you should use HTTPS even if you are using a VPN. If a site does not provide its online shipping services via HTTPS, you should strongly consider not doing business with the company. The browser will show a “lock” icon in your URL bar when connected to an HTTPS site. Also note that if your browser gives a warning when connecting to an HTTPS site, you should not continue browsing to the offending site.

7) Vet your emails and messages

Scams, spam and phishing normally increase during busy holiday seasons. Inspect your message sources such as emails carefully. Try to avoid clicking links or opening attachments unless you are very sure about the legitimacy of the sender. If you are in doubt, it never hurts to pick up the phone and call the sender to verify that the content is real and not spoofed.

8) Social media interactions

Ensure that your interactions with other social media users do not include personal or financial information, especially with users that you do not know. For example, you should refrain from sending credit card or banking information over social media channels. Instead, consider purchasing directly from the vendor’s online store.