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Online Shopping Safety Tips: How to Protect Yourself Online

Amira Dhalla of Consumer Reports provides some online shopping safety tips for this holiday shopping season.

The holiday season is prime time for phishers, scammers, and cybercriminals. They know you’re ready to buy, and they want to steal your money. Knowing some online shopping safety tips can help you protect yourself and your money. Read on to learn how to protect yourself online and keep your information and money away from scammers.


See Security Planning with Consumer Reports with Amira Dhalla for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Amira Dhalla is the Director of Impact Partnerships and Programs at Consumer Reports. Her work focuses on digital privacy and security for consumers. This has led her to organize programs like SecurityPlanner.org. She tackles questions like the best ways to advocate for privacy, how to partner with other organizations to improve policies, what can be done to combat new problems, and how to best protect people exploring new technologies or who are just starting to engage with technologies.

Amira never thought she would end up in the tech field. But fifteen years ago, she started exploring this thing called the internet. She found the tools and opportunities inspiring. She spent the next ten years working on digital literacy programs. Working with hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of countries, she found a need. For most people, learning to use the tools wasn’t enough. They were scared of the risks of using the internet. Amira shifted her work to focus on privacy, security, and how we can be safe and secure when using online tools and platforms that benefit our lives.

Common Fears About Getting Online

When Amira was working on digital literacy programs, she got to see what many people feared about going online. In some parts of the world, she worked with groups of women and girls. They frequently felt that online spaces weren’t safe and they would get harassed or attacked. Unfortunately, this did happen often.

Another very common fear was losing money. Some people had the digital literacy to get online, but weren’t aware of online dangers like phishing or malicious links. They didn’t just need a few online shopping safety tips to avoid fake Amazon products. In addition to knowing scams and fraud were out there, they needed the language and understanding to figure out if a website is malicious. They knew the internet had a lot of tools and was a great way to connect with others, but for them, the benefits also came with a financial loss to scams and fraud.

For some people, getting on the internet is dangerous - it has lots of opportunity, but also leads to financial loss.

Amira once gave a talk to a group of librarians in the Brooklyn Public Library system, and they kept telling her stories. They talked about people coming in who lost large sums of money to scams, phishing emails, people pretending to be relatives, and websites that stole their information. The librarians were unequipped to deal with it and support those people.

We’ve made it very easy for people to get online. But your ISP or your cable company aren’t offering to keep you safe. They give you access, but then you’re on your own.

Privacy and Safety Tools from Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports has provided independent testing and consumer advocacy since 1936. If you’ve ever wanted to find the best car, TV, or household appliance, chances are you came across Consumer Reports’ ratings and reviews in your research. But they don’t stop at physical products. Not only do they offer advice, like online shopping safety tips or how to get the best Black Friday deals, they also have tools to help keep you safe online.

Consumer Reports Security Planner

The Security Planner at securityplanner.org has been around for a long time. Consumer Reports worked with the individuals who created it, and then brought in into the Consumer Reports toolset a few years ago. It’s a free, easy-to-use guide to staying safe online.

The tools and recommendations are very personalized to your needs. When you log in, it asks what devices you have and what questions you have about online safety, and customizes your recommendations. It also categorizes your personal plan. It tells you which steps are most important, if they are free or cost money, and how much effort they take to accomplish.

In addition, the Security Planner is backed by an industry of experts. It’s not just the people at Consumer Reports. People around the cybersecurity industry provide recommendations and identify new threats. The tool has many features and many assets and is updated regularly.

It is a tool that is for the people, by the people, really addressing emerging threats and anything you might need as it comes to the digital world.

Amira Dhalla

Cybersecurity and Online Privacy Report

Consumer Reports recently produced a cybersecurity and online privacy report with the Aspen Institute called the Consumer Cyber Readiness Report. It looked at the behavior of consumers online to see how online behaviors and tools used have changed since 2019.

A lot has happened in the past three years. There was the pandemic, but we’ve also seen data breaches, cyber attacks, and cybercrime become more mainstream. There are documentaries and movies coming out, and advertising for both scams and security-related tools and products has increased. The whole industry has exploded.

Amira was excited that the report shows use of two-factor authentication (also called multi-factor authentication) has increased dramatically. In 2019, the report data showed about 50% of people used two-factor authentication. In 2022, 77% of people used it. Two-factor authentication is one of the greatest steps you can take for better security. Many institutions and corporations are mandating two-factor authentication now. That makes it more likely that people will understand what it is and actually do it.

[Two-factor authentication] is one of the single greatest things you can do to protect yourself online, especially if there’s a data breach or cyberattack.

Amira Dhalla

Passwords, though, have more disappointing news. Most people claim to have strong passwords. But the report found little to no change in the number of people using password managers. Password managers are very useful, and at this point many people know they are. Amira thinks people could be overwhelmed by the options. Or it could be cost-related, as most password managers cost money. Regardless, password managers are a great security tool to have strong passwords and keep them safe, but people are just not using them much.

Consumer Reports Buying Guides

Consumer Reports creates annual buying guides, such as for cars. But they also create buying guides for tools like password managers and VPNs. Currently, their top password manager recommendation is LastPass. For VPNs, they recommend iVPN, Mullvad VPN, or Mozilla VPN. If you’re overwhelmed with options, Consumer Reports’ buying guides are a great place to start.

Online Shopping Safety Tips for the Holidays

This time of the year, a big topic in online safety and security is online shopping. Especially as Black Friday and the holidays approach, more and more of us will be buying things online. In addition, the pandemic accelerated online shopping in general. It’s a perfect time for scammers to prey on people looking for the best deal or trying to find out-of-stock items.

Consumer Reports has a 90-year history of helping consumers make good buying decisions. Providing online shopping safety tips is part of that. When you’re looking to buy something online it’s important to know that you’re buying a legitimate product from a legitimate seller.

When it comes to online shopping safety tips, we often think only about physical products. But Amira includes charity scams under the same umbrella. It’s not about what specific products you buy, but where you put your money in general.

Easy Online Shopping Safety Tips to Protect Yourself

Implementing online shopping safety tips doesn’t have to be difficult. These suggestions are easy to do and will help keep you protected while shopping online.

Use Stronger, Better Passwords

The injunction to use stronger passwords isn’t unique to online shopping safety tips – it’s a general online safety tip that we all hear over and over. But it’s especially important for online shopping. f someone gets access to your Amazon account or another retailer account, they have access to the payment method you used there. That can be very costly. Strong passwords help keep hackers out. (Bonus tip: Save your passwords to a password manager so you never have to worry about forgetting them!)

Protect Your Accounts with Two-Factor Authentication

As mentioned previously, one of the best steps you can take to protect yourself online is to turn on two-factor authentication. Just like stronger passwords, it will keep malicious actors out of your accounts. Not only is enabling two-factor authentication one of the easiest online shopping safety tips to do, it offers a lot of protection for minimal effort.

Keep Your Devices Updated

Make sure your phone or computer has installed all of the latest software updates. Organizations are always updating sites, accounts, and programs to make sure they’re as secure as possible against threats. But those updates don’t do any good if you don’t install them.

Do Your Shopping with One Credit Card

If your online shopping charges are spread across three different debit cards and five credit cards, it’s hard to monitor all that. Limit your shopping to one or two credit cards. Then keep a close eye on those one or two accounts. If a malicious website stole and sold your credit card information, you’ll be able to spot the fraudulent charges quickly.

Confirm Local Sites are Secure

Lots of people love to shop local. Amira does as well. But just because it’s a local store doesn’t mean you can forget all the online shopping safety tips. Make sure the store owners have taken the time for proper security. Sometimes smaller shops skip security measures in the interest of saving time or money. Before you buy, ensure the store has up-to-date security and account security options like two-factor authentication.

Make Sure It’s Encrypted

Before you pay, make sure there’s encryption on the site. Encryption scrambles your information before sending it, so any hacker intercepting the information would get a screen full of gibberish instead of your credit card information. One way to check for encryption is to look for HTTPS instead of HTTP at the beginning of the site address. Encryption doesn’t mean the site is definitely safe, but it is an extra layer of security.

Be Ready for Phishing Advertisements

When we think about online shopping safety tips, we usually think of hackers trying to steal credit cards or fake websites selling fake products. But online shopping scams can be in your email inbox, as well. With so many stores sending Black Friday and holiday sale advertisements to your email, there’s lots of opportunities for a phishing scam to slip in pretending to be a great deal. Be ready to spot phishing attempts. And always remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

Beware of Grinch Bots

“Grinch bots” are applications that automatically make purchases online. There are some legitimate uses for them. But most often, they’re used to buy up the entire stock of a product and then reselling it on a third-party site at a high markup. They often buy from traditional marketplaces and then resell on sites like eBay and Craigslist.

Once you go to those third party sites, you can no longer verify if it’s reputable.

Amira Dhalla

This is an essential part of online shopping safety tips because Grinch bots are dangerous. You can’t verify a product or a seller’s reputability very well on a third-party site. Some of the listings sell real products for extremely high prices, some sell fake products, and some are just scams. Many of these sites have HTTPS, which can complicate the issue. Some people think HTTPS is the same as legitimate. HTTPS means the payment is more secure, but it doesn’t guarantee the listing is legitimate. It can be very confusing for the average consumer.

How to Identify a Fake Website

Being able to identify a fake website or illegitimate online store is one of the essential online shopping safety tips. It can also be difficult, as fake websites can look very similar to legitimate websites.

Fake websites often have unfamiliar addresses or domains. For example, instead of realstore.com, a fake site might be realstore.ev. Often, they ask for personal or account information right away – they want to get your private information as soon as possible. If they are imitating a reputable site, they often use old or outdated logos or branding. You can spot this more easily if you stay up-to-date with your favorite stores’ branding.

Examine a website to make sure it's legitimate BEFORE you give it any information or make a purchase.

Fake websites often contain bad grammar or spelling. This is a common tip-off for Amira. They also focus on urgency. They want you to do something right away, such as fill out this form. Often they ask for more information than a legitimate store would need. Before you give any store your information, ask why they need it. Is it relevant to the product or service they’re providing? Nobody enjoys reading through privacy policies, but does the website have one? Amira has gotten in the habit of skimming through privacy policies just to see what the site is doing with her data.

Every time you’re inputting information, every time you’re going to a site or searching a specific thing, they’re tracking and using all of that.

Amira Dhalla

How to Identify Charity Scams

If we extend online shopping safety tips into charity scams, identifying charity scams becomes essential. During the holidays, there are many organizations, charities, and nonprofits asking for donations. It’s a huge fundraising time for them. Phishers and scammers also see the opportunity. They know you’re likely to enter your credit card information to make a donation at this time of year. They will send emails trying to convince you to send money to them instead.

Many of the same advice for identifying fake websites can be used to identify fake charities. If you want to donate to a specific charity, go to their website directly. If you’re not sure of the right website, sites like Charity Navigator and Charity Watch have direct links. Be very suspicious of email links, and never donate to anything or anyone who is pressuring you to give money immediately. A little bit of planning and forethought can help keep you safe this holiday season.

For all your online shopping safety needs, as well as information on new devices, systems, and tools, there are tons of resources in Consumer Reports’ Security Planner. One tool, for example, will help you find and delete old accounts so scammers can’t take that data and use it against you. All this and more at SecurityPlanner.org. Check it out today!

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