Deal-savvy holiday online shoppers look forward to Cyber Monday each year to secure the best gifts at the best prices, but tech-savvy cybercriminals are determined to cash in on those unsuspecting shoppers with Cyber Monday scams.
That's partly because the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, starting with Black Friday, is one of the busiest times within the most hectic shopping season of the year. In 2023, holiday sales are projected to reach up to $284 billion, according to data from Deloitte. And a growing share of that shopping is happening online, with ecommerce sales projected to rise by almost 13 percent from last year.
Online shoppers may get distracted by holiday shopping lists, gatherings, and the bustle of the season, and cybercriminals know it's easier to trick someone who's got their mind on other things.
But you may be able to avoid having your holiday fun spoiled by a scammer if you take a few simple steps to help you shop safer online.
As you make your online purchases, stay vigilant by following these simple Cyber Monday safety tips.
1. Do your holiday shopping with reputable retailers.
Stick with big name retailers. Once you've made your holiday shopping list and checked to see who's been naughty or nice, decide where to shop. One way to avoid Cyber Monday scams: Stick with bigger-name retailers you know and trust. Think well-known department stores, discount retailers, and businesses big enough to run holiday TV commercials.
Avoid shady third-party sellers.
One thing to keep in mind, though: Large retailers like Target and Walmart have started allowing third-party sellers to advertise wares on their sites, The New York Times' consumer publication Wirecutter warns. One way to avoid dealing with unknown third-party sellers is to look at the "sold by and shipped from" note in the product description and opt to buy items only from the big retailer.
Go directly to retailer sites.
Once you've decided where to shop, bookmark those retailers' sites to go there directly rather than clicking on offers in ads, emails, or text messages. That will help keep you safe from fraudsters who create realistic looking fake stores designed to look just like the sites of trusted retailers. These Cyber Monday scammers are hoping you'll make a typo when typing in the name of the retailer and will land on their lookalike site.
2. Only shop on secure sites to help avoid Cyber Monday scams.
Want to shop small? Look for secure sites.
If you're sticking with well-known retailers, their sites should be secure. But what if you want to support small businesses and independent shops? In this case, verify that the business is legitimate and their site is secure. To do so, look for a little lock icon in the top left corner of your browser bar when you're on the site. A secure site's URL should start with HTTPS and not HTTP. You might have to click on the URL to see the HTTPS.
Secure sites help shield you from hackers.
Secure sites use SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates and TLS (transport layer security) technology. An SSL certificate is issued by a reputable organization that independently verifies the identity of the website. When you shop on an ecommerce website with an SSL certificate and TLS technology, no one can access or change the data being shared between you and the website. That allows you to do your shopping safely and leaves holiday hackers out in the cold.
Support businesses that value security.
A business that spends the time and money to make sure their site is secure shows that they've invested into their business and that customer security and privacy are priorities for them. That's a good sign that the business is safe to support and intends to be around for the long haul -- an important consideration if you may want to return an item or ask for a refund later.
3. Learn how to spot holiday shopping scams.
Just like little white lights and pumpkin spice, shopping scams are just about everywhere if you know how to spot them. Take a minute to brush up on common Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and other holiday shopping scams so you can avoid falling for one.
Know that holidays offer a bounty for scammers.
Cyber Monday scams and other holiday scams are common because hackers know that a lot of busy and distracted people will be shopping online during this time. Remember, consumers spend an enormous amount of money between November and January, and holiday scammers are determined to get a piece of that holiday pie.
Learn how Cyber Monday scams work.
Brush up on common holiday scammer tactics. For example, a Cyber Monday scammer may advertise amazing "deals" on a gift, collect your money, and then never send the goods. They may set up fake online stores to collect your credit card number and other personal info so they can later use the data to commit credit card fraud or ID theft. A scammer may also ask you to pay for a purchase with a gift card so they can steal the funds on the card, leaving you high and dry.
As a rule, always stay away from offers and sales that seem too good to be true.
4. Safeguard store accounts with strong passwords.
Know the importance of strong passwords.
Did you create an account, instead of checking out as a guest, to make it easier to shop with a favorite retailer? Make sure to protect that account with a strong password so a cybercriminal can't get into your account and steal your information or make a purchase with your card. Make sure your passwords are long, with a mix of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and characters. Avoid using common words, phrases, and personal information such as pet names or family birthdays.
Get a password manager.
One easy and convenient way to generate secure passwords and keep them at your fingertips: a password manager. A password manager can generate secure passwords, store them, and autofill them when you want to shop. It can also save your payment information safely and securely.
5. Protect your financial information.
Opt for credit, not debit.
When shopping online, always reach for a credit card over a debit card, which offers direct access to the money in your bank account. If you become a victim of credit card fraud, real money never leaves your account. But if you use a debit card, it can take weeks to get your money back while the bank investigates—if you get it back at all. Debit card fraud is also handled differently, and you could be on the hook for more of the funds the thief stole.
Don't save your card information.
Retailers often ask if you want to store your card information on their site for faster checkout in the future. It's a good idea to decline this option to reduce the chances of having your card information compromised in a retailer data breach.
Pay with a payment provider.
If you want the ease and speed of checking out with saved payment information, consider paying with a payment provider like PayPal. If you go this route, the retailer won't ever get your card information. And you'll have it stored in one place rather than all over the internet.
Consider a virtual card number.
If you want an even more secure shopping experience, see if your credit card company offers virtual credit card numbers. These are temporary throwaway credit card numbers that are linked to your real card number. You can use them for one purchase or a limited time, then they will no longer work.
6. Don't shop on public wifi.
Don't holiday shop in public.
It may sound nice to do your holiday shopping at a local coffee shop, sipping a warm drink while "Let It Snow" plays in the background. But shopping online from your laptop, tablet, or phone while connected to public wifi can open the door to hackers.
Help protect yourself with extra security.
Public wifi connections are often unencrypted and unsecured, leaving you vulnerable to a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack that could allow a scammer to grab your name, address, credit card number, and other personal information. If you must shop on public wifi, use a trusted virtual private network (VPN), which creates a “tunnel” that allows you to transmit your encrypted data securely.
7. Check for fraud after your holiday shopping.
Watch your finances.
Just as Santa's always watching, you should be keeping a close eye on your financial accounts. During the holiday season, take a few minutes to keep an eye on your bank and credit accounts online. Check in daily or every few days. Glance over the transactions, make sure the amounts are correct and look for fraud.
Report fraud right away.
If you spot an unauthorized or suspicious transaction, call your bank or card issuer right away. Federal law offers plenty of protections for fraudulent transactions. But to benefit, you need to see and report the fraud in a timely manner. Reporting fraud quickly will also allow your card company to investigate more effectively. And you'll be doing your part to combat Cyber Monday scams.
Follow these Cyber Monday safety tips for 2023 and beyond, and your holiday season should be merry, bright, and free from scammers who are waiting to take advantage of your holiday spirit.