How to shop Cyber Monday without getting ripped off

There is one thing cybercriminals can count on when seeking ways to steal your personal information when you’re shopping online: People are too trusting.

As we approach Cyber Monday, the online version of Black Friday, I need you to institute a healthy dose of skepticism. Be suspicious of all email you get, including those that appear to be from a person or company you know.

There’s a lot of money to be had on Cyber Monday. Online sales reached $1.2 billion last year, according to comScore, a Web tracking firm. The cybercrooks get into the action by obtaining personal information that can be used to steal credit card numbers or open accounts in a victim’s name.

When shopping online, beware of pop-up ads claiming you can get an incredible deal on some consumer items.

And since so many of you are going to do some of your Cyber Monday shopping during work hours, I’m going to need you — speaking on behalf of your employers — to exercise extreme caution so that you don’t compromise the computer systems on your job. This year, 72 million people, or 56.8 percent of all Cyber Monday shoppers, are projected to shop for a holiday gift from the office, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual holiday spending survey.

You might be thinking: Don’t people know this already? Don’t they know what it takes to avoid being a victim of identity theft? Haven’t they already been warned not to open up emails that appear to be from legitimate companies but then ask for information those companies would already have? Don’t they know not to click on links offering deals that sound too good to be true?

Yes, I believe many people know the drill. They’ve been repeatedly warned. Or they’ve heard the tips offered year after year during the holidays. But it’s one thing to know how to protect yourself. It’s quite another to use this knowledge to effectively protect yourself, especially when a great deal is being dangled online. People get distracted and lose their common sense when they think they might miss out on a sale. They second guess themselves because the emails can look so convincing.

Most online retailers will offer special promotions at some point during the Thanksgiving weekend, according to Shop.org’s eHoliday survey.

So, follow these cyber safety tips from the Better Business Bureau:

•Keep in mind this is prime phishing season. Identity thieves have become extremely skilled at sending emails that look authentic. Often the goal is to install malicious software on your computer or steal personal information off of your computer. The messages in emails may claim there is a problem with your holiday order or your account in an effort to lure you into revealing passwords or personal information. Don’t click on links or open attachments. If you receive this type of email, call the contact number on the website where you made your purchase to confirm that there really is a problem.

Be careful about clicking on links that are displayed as part of your top results from an online search. Hackers know how to snare victims through a technique called search engine optimization poisoning. They know that people might be searching for “holiday sales” or “Black Friday deals.” Using such keywords, they then drive you to websites set up to capture your personal information or to sell you inferior or fake products. Or you might not get anything at all. If I see a deal in a search purportedly from a well-known retailer, I instead go to that retailer’s website directly by typing in the address. If you are unsure about a link without clicking on it, hover over it with your cursor to see what comes up. The string of cryptic characters won’t match a company’s Web address.

Double-check that a website is secure. Only enter personal information such as credit card numbers in secure, encrypted websites. Look in the address box for the “s” in “https://” and in the lower-right corner for the “lock” symbol before paying.

Promise me you will print out these tips and tape them to your computer at home and at work. Before you shop online, review the warnings so that you can stay out of the path of cybercriminals.

Michelle Singletary: singletarym@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

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