One way to avoid holiday crowds is to shop online, though most of the seasonal spending is done in stores. “Online purchases go up a bit each year, but they only accounted for 8 percent of all the retail activity during last year’s holiday season,” says Richard Feinberg, a professor of retail management at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
Use caution if you buy online, especially if you plan to shop on auction sites. Some of the most common online schemes include fraudulent auction sales, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). In one example, Internet criminals post auctions for products they don’t have. When they receive an order, they charge the buyer’s credit card for it, then use a separate, stolen credit card to pay for it. They pocket the money from the buyer and get the merchant to ship the item directly to the them. IC3 says that when an item is purchased from an online auction but received directly from a merchant, it’s a strong indication of fraud. Victims of this scam not only lose the money paid to the con artist, who now has their credit-card information, but also might be liable for receiving stolen goods.
Shoppers can help avoid these scams and others by not providing financial information directly to a seller and using a payment service like Pay Pal instead. Before you buy, check a seller’s rating and feedback; note the number of sales and the dates feedback was posted. Be wary of a seller with 100 percent positive feedback (a sign negative reviews aren’t posted), a low total number of feedback posts, or with all of the feedback posted around the same date and time.
Don’t forget to examine your online shopping cart before you check out. A reader recently alerted us that CompUSA added “free” antivirus software to his cart at check out. The company told us that the software is added to some purchases. But the software is only free for six months. If you don’t read the fine print, the credit card you used to make the purchase will be charged $49.99. CompUSA says you’ll be notified before that happens. If you shop on a smart phone, you’re vulnerable to the same virus, spyware, and phishing threats that can harm your computer. Consider installing security software that detects and removes malware and lets you remotely lock or delete data if your phone is lost.
Finally, don’t shop on a public Wi-Fi network if you’ll be revealing user names, passwords, or other personal information that crooks might capture. If you use a wireless Internet connection at home, be sure that the security features are turned on and that you set your own password rather than using a default one.