Online shoppers scouring the internet for deals during Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Christmas present a nice big juicy target for cyber criminals. From email phishing attempts to social media scams, hackers are continually coming up with new ways to fleece unwitting internet users.
Numerous high-profile hacks in 2015, including TalkTalk, Experian and Ashley Madison, have brought the subject of data loss into the mainstream yet the allure of heavily discounted products may blind some consumers to the dangers of shopping online.
"More online transactions mean more opportunity for fraudulent behaviour," warns Rashmi Knowles, chief security architect EMEA at security firm RSA.
Here are some ways to safe from cyber criminals while shopping online this year:
Be aware of phishing scam
Email phishing scams remain one of the most effective tools of the cyber criminal and while the process has remained the same for many years an increased focus on targeted attacks and social engineering means they are more dangerous - and convincing - than ever before.
"Online shoppers should be especially careful of emails they receive. Phishing campaigns that try to dupe consumers into giving away personal and financial information tend to rise during the holiday season," says Lane Thames, security researcher at Tripwire.
Don't use public Wi-Fi to purchase items
Public Wi-Fi hotspots are not a safe place to do online shopping this Black Friday, Cyber Monday or indeed any other time of the year. Inherently insecure, surfing the net in a café or a tube station can leave your personal details such as usernames, passwords and financial data wide open to attack.
If you do intend to shop on a public network, consider using a virtual private network (VPN). This year F-Secure demonstrated the weaknesses of public networks so think twice about buying that TV while drinking a latte on your lunch break.
Be aware of social media dangers
Social media is often rife with scam deals, especially during busy trading periods such as Black Friday and Christmas. Watch out for fake brand accounts, fake gift card scams and fake business pages. While social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are great for keeping in touch with friends or sharing photos, they also hold vast amounts of personal data including personal phone numbers and email addresses that can be exploited by cyber criminals to send convincing, and targeted, spoof emails.
If it's too good to be true, it probably is
If you do stumble on a deal online that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Double check the that the business selling the product is genuine. "When you're in deal-hunting mode, you may not be thinking as much about being safe the way you normally do. Keep your wits about you," warns Jonathan Sander, vice president of product strategy at Lieberman Software.
Use unique and strong passwords
Strong, unique passwords are an important part of staying secure online and it is never a good idea to use the same password on multiple accounts. Furthermore, some security experts advise users to even create multiple email accounts.
"Set up separate email accounts for shopping sites, so any potentially harmful emails are not going straight to your personal or business email account. This also means you can sit down and have all of the emails in one place when you do start looking for those bargains," says Mav Turner, director of security at SolarWinds.
Ensure web URLs use HTTPS
Keep an eye on website URLs and only make significant purchases over secure websites that use HTTPS. The websites that use this allow sensitive information such as credit card data to be transmitted securely.
"Never purchase merchandise from a website that does not use secure HTTPS for the purchase process. Check the address line of your browser during the purchase process; it should start with HTTPS," say researchers at Tripwire.
Check your bank accounts regularly
Keep an eye on your bank accounts and look out for any suspicious transactions. "Consumers need to diligently monitor all accounts for unauthorised activity. Most financial institutions will reverse fraudulent charges but only if those are reported by the consumer," warns Willy Leichter, global director of security strategy at CipherCloud.
Use anti-virus software and ensure all software is up to date
It is more important than ever to ensure that a strong anti-virus tool is installed on your computer. This will - if all goes to plan - catch the majority of phishing attacks or scam websites before you have the chance to fall victim to them. Many security firms offer anti-virus software so there are plenty to choose from but do note that free options are not advised. Furthermore, keep your computer, whether it is Windows, Mac or Linux, up to date with the latest software releases to stay protected at a basic level.
"Make sure your computer has the most current security software patches installed. Once a security patch is available, cyber criminals have all the information they need to attack devices that have not been updated," warns security firm Tripwire.
Use your common sense
We are living in a digital age so do not become complacent about protecting your data online. Gone are the days when it was only your PC that required protection. Now, smartwatches, smartphones and tablets have entered the mix so be aware that cyber criminals will be actively looking to exploit any mistakes you make.
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