Person Shopping Online with a Card

How to Shop Safely Online This Holiday Season

December 1, 2021
By Tim Russell
Technology Services Manager

‘Tis the season — and holiday shopping is upon us.   

Remember when we bundled up, bristled against the cold, and bustled about crowded stores to find perfect holiday gifts? Those days aren’t over, but they are certainly different this year. 

Where once our greatest concern was finding the best deal in town, we must now contend with face masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing, and minimizing COVID-19 exposure factors. Yes, though we may be loath to admit it, the pandemic has changed how we think about shopping.

There are no simple answers, but the appeal of online shopping is a strong one — and for some, a necessity and lifeline. We purchase things online every day — prescriptions, groceries, clothing, meals, entertainment and even doctor visits. But how do we stay safe while doing it?

Remember these safe online shopping tips

We've got a few safe online shopping tips to keep your holidays merry and bright:

Limit online shopping to one or two cards.

Using one or two cards for online shopping makes it easier to spot fraud as you monitor your accounts.  Even better, use a mobile wallet service such as Apple Pay or Google Pay (learn how to upload your SNB debit card to your phone). These mobile wallet services use secure, one-time tokens that a criminal can't copy.

Check your account statements often.

Track your purchases and compare them to the activity on your checking account. Investigate and report discrepancies to your financial institution. Security National Bank makes it simple to monitor your account, with online banking or through the SNB Mobile App.

Don’t store your card number online.

During an online purchase, your browser might prompt you to save your card information. Don't do it. It might be a bit more inconvenient, but keeping your card information private from your browser gives a thief one less opportunity to use your card.

Look for the lock (only shop on secure websites).

Only use sites that have SSL (secure sockets layer) encryption installed. You'll know if the site starts with HTTPS—instead of just HTTP. An icon of a locked padlock will also appear, typically to the left of the URL in the address bar or the status bar below it:

Example: what a secure website looks like in your browser

Put your devices on lockdown.

Protect your tablet or smartphone with passcode access, and lock the screen while you're away. If you access a shopping site on a desktop computer, log out completely from the site before you leave. Don’t let your computer or device's browser remember your usernames or passwords.

Keep your security software up-to-date.

Make sure you have the latest security updates installed on your device. This can go a long way toward blocking all kinds of online security threats. It’s especially important to keep your phone on the latest operating system.

Stick with well-known retailers (or local businesses you know).

If you find yourself off the beaten path online, look for indications the business is reputable. Do they have a return policy?  Do they have a customer service number and does someone answer when you call?  Do they charge sales tax?  Do they have a mailing address, preferably one that isn’t a post office box? If you Google search the business name and include the word “scam”, do you see a lot of complaints?

Never go public with your wi-fi.

Hackers love public hotspots, because hooking up to public wi-fi leaves your device's information ripe for the picking. Skip the free Wi-Fi in stores, coffee shops or restaurants. Most importantly, never log in to banking sites or payment sites like Paypal on a public network.

Use different, complex passwords.

If a hacker discovers a password for one of your accounts, they have tools that can quickly check hundreds of sites to see if you used the same password elsewhere. Diversifying your password selection limits your exposure. Passwords should also be at least 10 characters long, and include some sort of symbol, number and combination of uppercase and lowercase letters. Don't use a single word from the dictionary or an easy-to-guess password. 

Use two-factor authentication.

A lot of shopping sites give an extra layer of security when you log on — like requiring an extra passcode that's sent to your device, just to make sure it's actually you. This is for your own benefit. If you plan to be a repeat shopper at a website, see if two-factor authentication is offered and if it is, take advantage of it.

Chart: Two-Factor Authentication, Explained

Be wary of “dream deals.”

Be skeptical of deals that are too good to be true.  A 50-inch 4K TV with a free 1-year subscription to Disney+ for $99 should set off an alarm. Something’s up! 

Don't use payment apps for online transactions.

Payment apps on your phone, like Venmo or CashApp, are meant to send money to family and friends — not strangers who you meet on Craig's List or Facebook Swap. Think of a payment app as handing someone cash. There's no guarantee you'll get it back. For more information, read our blog on payment app scams

Watch out for phishing emails, texts and phone calls.

The holidays are a common time for email scammers to send out viruses and malware in the guise of a gift, coupons, or a special offer. You may see emails coming through that look like they are from Amazon or Best Buy with incredible offers, but are scams.  Don’t open emails or texts from someone you don’t know and don't click on links to a site you haven’t visited. Instead of clicking on the links in the email or text message, go straight to the vendor's website yourself and see if they list the promotion. If you can't find the promotion on the website, it might not be legitimate.

Again, watch out for phishing.

Another way the bad guys try to get you is with phony messages from your bank or other financial institution saying there is an alert or problem with your account. Always contact the Bank directly to verify any potential problems and never provide account information in response to an email.

Online fraud is far worse than a lump of coal in your stocking. Make sure you have only pleasant surprises this holiday season by sticking to these tips to keep you and yours protected. 

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About the Author

Tim Russell

Tim Russell is the Technology Services Manager at Security National Bank. He has more than 30 years of experience in technology and network administration, across the health care and financial service industries. Tim holds a computer science and business degree from Morningside College.