In a rush to complete your holiday shopping? Online scammers hope so. Identity theft and online scams peak at this time of year when consumers are often too distracted to follow the usual safety precautions.

An astonishing 40 percent of online scam attempts occur during the last quarter of the year, says Rurik Bradbury, a marketing executive at e-commerce security company Trustev. Don’t rely on retailers to shield you, he warns. Because they’re overwhelmed by high volumes of online shopping, “their manual processes of reviewing and checking transactions for online fraud flags are not sustainable," he explains.

With almost half of holiday shopping (both browsing and buying) occurring online this year, according to the National Retail Federation, it’s up to you to watch for signs of a scam and protect yourself.

Check Before You Click

  • Click with care. Scammers try to lure you to copycat websites of well-known brands or retailers by advertising great deals on hot-ticket items on social media sites or through search engines. Their goal: to deliver malware to your computer, steal your credit card number, or “phish” for personal information. To outsmart them, check the website addresses for misspellings, such as extra letters or words in common names, or domains other than the usual “.com” or “.org.”  To further protect yourself, type the URL directly into your browser; do not click on a link from an email or social media site unless you are absolutely sure the message is from a legitimate business.
  • Check for prior complaints. Unless you are absolutely sure that the seller is legitimate, do an online search for the vendor’s name and the words “scam,” complaint,” or “review.” If you find mostly negative information—or no information at all—your fraud antenna should start humming. You may also want to check the name of the company or website with the Better Business Bureau.  
  • Search for the “S.” Look for the “https” instead of “http” on the web address of the payment page before you enter a credit card number or other personal information. The “s” stands for a secure connection which reduces the chance of online scams. Also, do not use free, public Wi-Fi to enter your credit card or other financial account information; scammers routinely hack public Wi-Fi hotspots to steal your passwords.   
  • Use a credit card. Paying with a credit card, not a debit card, generally offers stronger protections against online scams. Be sure to save invoices and confirmation emails to compare them to your credit card statements. 


Check Consumer Reports' 2015 Holiday Guide for our picks of the best gifts, details on the latest deals, time-saving tips, and much more. And see our countdown calendar for top gift ideas for everyone on your list.
 

If you can squelch your spontaneity, take ten minutes to install updates on your phone, tablet, computer, or other electronic devices before shopping online. Installing updates can add new security patches to your apps, operating systems, anti-virus software, and other important programs. Be sure to download updates only from the official app provider.