There is no doubt online shopping has become an increasingly popular option for people looking for deals and convenience. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans spent $92.8 billion shopping online in the first quarter of this year.
And as the online shopping industry continues to evolve, so do the scams.
The sophistication of Internet scams is getting better and better, and if you're one of the millions of people making frequent purchases online, it's important that you take certain steps in order to protect yourself and your wallet.
How to avoid scammers while shopping online
Make sure your computer and other devices are secure
Make sure your computer (or any other device you're using to shop online) is free of malware and that your security software is up to date before making any online purchases. Check out our Virus, Spyware and Malware Protection Guide for links to free options.
If you're looking for mobile security, try a freemium service called MyLookout.com that offers protection for smartphones running Android, Blackberry or Windows. If you have an iPhone, make sure your device is always running on the latest software. Apple frequently makes updates available, which often fix any potential security issues that could put you at risk. So make sure to always install the latest updates.
Beware of fake email scams
Shopping online typically involves email confirmations related to any purchases you make, and scammers use several different email scams to trick consumers into handing over their personal information. Plus, record online shopping means a lot of packages are being shipped, and fake package tracking emails are a very easy way for scammers to steal consumers' information.
If it is a scam and you click on a link in the email, what often happens is a virus is immediately loaded on to your computer or other device. And then… nothing happens. You forget all about it while the virus sits there lurking and capturing your every keystroke to get your username and password for sensitive financial accounts.
Thieves have found ways to make email scams look like they're coming from legitimate groups and companies, including charities, retailers, credit card companies, banks, shipping companies (UPS, FedEx) and more. So if you receive an email you weren't expecting -- or even a "confirmation" email you were expecting -- do not click on any of the links provided in the email. The safest way to see if the information is legitimate is by opening a separate browser and signing in to the company's official website directly. You can also call the company directly to confirm any information sent via email.
After you make a purchase online and get a tracking number for the shipment, you should only track your package by signing in to the company's website directly and entering the tracking number there. Never click on any links sent via email -- as these scams are popping up more and more every day.
Watch out for these email subject lines that are being used in popular scams:
- "You have a New encrypted message from your bank"
- "USPS is notifying you that your package is available for pickup"
- "You have received your payroll invoice"
- "Your FED TAX payment was rejected"
- "Advisors Online Documents Activated"
- "Transaction notification from your bank"
- "Docusign To all Employees - Confidential Message"
- "INCOMING FAX REPORT"
Never shop online using public Wi-Fi
Scammers can easily steal your information when you're using an unsecured network. If you use a public computer, make sure to always completely log out of every website and the computer itself. When it comes to using free Wi-Fi networks, never sign in to any of your accounts that contain sensitive personal information, such as your bank account or any account that contains your bank, debit or credit card information.
Beware of fake charities
Unfortunately, scammers are preying on consumers who are looking for, or willing to take part in, charitable giving opportunities. These scams are often presented via email or social media posts. Before donating to any charity you aren't already familiar with, check to make sure it's legitimate using Give.org or charitynavigator.org.
Shop only on secure, legitimate websites
When you're shopping online, make sure you're on a secure site -- which is marked by https:// (notice the s). Scammers are not only preying on online shoppers in general, but they're also specifically targeting shoppers looking for "incredible" and "won't last" deals.
If you see a great deal that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Do a little research and make sure the website or company has a physical address or phone number you can verify. You can also check with the Better Business Bureau for more information on specific companies. Another option is an add-on to your browser from sites like Web Of Trust that can help you verify questionable websites.
Beware of 'incredible' deals on social media
If you see any posts on Facebook with language like "OMG! CHECK OUT THIS GREAT DEAL!" -- that's a sign it's probably not a great deal. You never know when your friends' accounts have been compromised, so posts offering great deals may be coming from friends' accounts by way of scammers.
There has also been a recent rise in retailers that offer super discounted prices on Facebook. They look like great deals in the photos, but when you receive the item in the mail, it doesn't look anything like that great promotional photo you saw on Facebook.
Beware of fake shopping apps
Just in time for the holiday shopping season, hundreds of fake retail and product apps have found their way into Apple's App Store recently -- enticing iPhone users with all kinds of fake deals, discounts and offers.
And it's not just Apple users who are at risk, shoppers need to take caution when downloading any app that asks for your personal information, especially credit card or bank account info.
Scammers can do a lot of damage with these types of fake apps -- not only can they steal the cash you hand over, but they can also use your personal information to make more fraudulent charges, open accounts in your name and do other things that can destroy your financial life.
So when it comes to protecting your information and money, there are a few important things to keep in mind!
- If you don't recognize the company name, research the app and company before you download it: Doing a quick search online can help you spot a potentially fake app. Just search the name of the app, the company name and "reviews," and that should give you some answers.
- If an app appears to be a retailer's official app, check the company's website before you download it: Before you download what appears to be an official app, check out the company's website to find out if they even have an app, and if they do, follow the direct link on the company's website. Taking a few minutes to do this can save you a lot of wasted money!
Check your credit card and bank statements daily
Checking your bank statements daily not only allows you to keep up with your purchases and current balance, but it also allows you to check for any transactions that don't look familiar. Here's more on why you should be checking every day.
Most important: Never shop online with a debit card
Debit cards are full of hidden dangers to your wallet! And if thieves get their hands on your debit card/checking account information, you're in big trouble
If your credit card is compromised, the harm to you is relatively small. You contact the issuer to report false charges and you may have to do some paperwork, but no money leaves your hands. With debit card fraud, however, there is money that leaves your hands.You have to fight to get your own money back, and unfortunately, it's now taking longer and longer to get that money back -- if ever.
Plus, if your bank account is emptied by a thief who stole your debit card information, that could really mess you up when it comes to any monthly payments that are counting on that money -- resulting in bounced checks and/or overdrawing your account.