This time of year is extremely busy and stressful for many of us. As well as the filling of calendars with social events and once-a-year catchups with people we've neglected all year, there are lots of sales that compete for our attention as we look for bargains to fill Christmas stockings and the space under the tree. But that stress can lead us to make some poor decisions when it comes to online safety.
A survey by McAfee has found that almost half of online shoppers believe the stress of the holiday season can cause them to behave carelessly online and 64% are likely to use a website they’re unfamiliar with if it meant they could save money. And the risks aren't just online with a one in five shoppers using public Wi-Fi to conduct purchases.
The risks can start in your inbox, with links to shopping deals often a tool used by criminals trying to lure you to dodgy websites purely designed to steal your personal information and credit card details.
So, what can you do to stay safe during the shopping season?
#1 Check Before You Click
Phishing remains one of the most used tools in the criminal armoury for a very good reason - it works.
Despite all the warnings and education people still click on links in email without checking if they're safe. Most email clients have a way to let you see where a link is going before you click, either by holding your mouse pointer over the link or using a gesture on a touchscreen device.
While spam filters block a lost of phishing emails, they are not infallible.
The government's Scamwatch site provides some good information on avoiding scam sites and what to do if you think you've been hit.
#2 Avoid Public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi can be useful but its a potential risk depending on how it's been set up. And that's something you can't always know. My preferred position is to treat any network as untrusted and avoid it by using cellular data.
If that's not possible, then invest in a decent VPN solution and always use it when on an untrusted network.
You might know what a virtual private network (VPN) is, but the odds of you actually using one are low. You really should be using a VPN — ultimately, you may end up seeing it as just as vital as your internet connection. We'll tell you why, explain how to choose a VPN provider and list five that are worth considering.
#3 Avoid Unfamiliar Websites
When looking for bargains using a search engine, don't assume that every result that is returned is safe. Check the site and then do a separate search to check on the site's reputation.
If you're concerned, do a Whois to see when the domain was registered. If it's really new, then that may be a sign that the site was created specifically to exploit people during the shopping season.
#4 Make Sure The Site Uses Encryption
It's pretty rare for a shopping site to not encrypt everything but make sire you see the padlock on the site's address in your browser and that the certificate information is valid.
Your browser should tell you if the certificate is not quite right. Heed the warnings as the hassle of having your credit card data stolen probably isn't worth the discount you might get.
#5 Get Smart With Credit Cards
I have a credit card, with a low limit, that I specifically use for online shopping. And while scams are usually covered by the issuer of the credit card, having a low limit means the risk for the bank is minimised and the hassle for me is managed.
I'd also advocate strongly for using Samsung Pay, Android Pay, Apple Pay or other tokenised payment system. When you pay using a tokenised method, your credit card information never gets to the seller. They get an ephemeral token that authorises that payment and no other.