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Fraud Watch Network: Tips to shop smart and safe online this holiday season

woman and man exchanging gifts
Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto

Holiday shopping season is in full swing. If you're like most Americans, you’ll do a significant amount of your shopping online. Unfortunately, there is a tradeoff for skipping the bustling crowds of last-minute shoppers at the mall in favor of checking off your gift list online while still wearing your pajamas. It’s OK, though!

Here are a few simple tips anyone can follow to reduce the risk of being scammed or stolen from when shopping online.

  • Check a site’s security settings. If the site is secure, its URL (web address) should start with “https://” and include a lock icon on the purchase or shopping cart page.
  • Avoid shopping on public Wi-Fi. If you must, only shop on public Wi-Fi if you have a “Virtual Private Network” on your device and it is turned on.
  • Shop with a credit card. In case of a fraudulent transaction, a credit card provides additional protections; it’s easier to dispute charges that you didn’t approve. Debit cards, prepaid cards or gift cards don’t have the same protections as a credit card.
  • Be a savvy shopper. When shopping online, be sure to take your time, and read the fine print before submitting your order. Look for the return policy; although many online orders can be returned for a full refund, others have restocking fees. Some items cannot be returned; know before you buy.
  • Protect personal information. It’s easy for a fake site to mimic a famous retailer’s website, so make sure you are shopping with a legitimate site. Read a site’s privacy policy and understand what personal information is being requested and how it will be used. If a site doesn’t have a privacy policy, that’s a big red flag that it may be a scam. If the site is missing contact information, that is another red flag. Check out retailers at bbb.org before you shop.
  • Keep documentation of your order. Save a copy of the confirmation page or email confirmation until you receive the item and are satisfied. Be sure to know and understand the return policy and keep this documented with your purchase records.
  • Give generously, but wisely. Legitimate charities make a big push at year-end for last minute annual donations. Scammers know this, and make their own end-of-year push to line their own pockets. Check the charity before donating at charitynavigator.org or give.org, and make sure your donation is going to the charities that really are using your money for good.
  • Beware of phishing. Phishing emails can look like a message from a well-known brand, but clicking on unfamiliar links can place you at risk for malware and/or identity theft. One popular scam claims to be from a package-delivery company with links to “tracking information” on an order you don’t remember making. Don’t click!
  • Think before you click. Be especially cautious about email solicitations and online ads on social media sites. Many sketchy retailers advertise great deals or trendy clothing that don’t measure up to the promotional hype.
  • Keep a clean machine. Install a firewall, anti-virus, and anti-spyware software. Check for and install the latest updates and run virus scans regularly on your computer, tablet, and smartphone.

Online shopping should take the stress out of the holiday season, so to learn more about how you can protect your digital identity, check out AARP’s Fraud Watch Network for everything you need to know about shopping smart and safe this holiday season.

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