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How to shop safe and smart online this holiday season

This holiday season could be a bonanza for cyber thieves, but you don't have to be a victim.

CLEVELAND — With record numbers of consumers shopping online this year because of COVID, thieves have a whole new set of victims with first time buyers. But, they’ve also gotten so good at scams, even the most seasoned shopper can be lured in. Did you know that scammers now have tools where they learn your buying behaviors and offer you exactly what you're looking for?

That means we're often the ones opening the door for them to come in and do their damage.

So, the first step in safe online shopping is to find trusted sites.

In fact, online shopper Amanda Bezares, says she never buys from sites she doesn’t know. "I'm not like, ‘well it's cheaper on this site that I've never heard of. Let me order it from there and save myself $2 and then ended up losing $500 because they stole my credit card information’,” she explains.

According to the Better Business Bureau's recent Online Purchase Scams report, of the 57% of shoppers surveyed who did not research a site through an independent source like bbb.org before making a purchase, 81% say they lost money.

Alma Galvan of the Better Business Bureau says, "Always check the age of the url, the url itself, grammatical errors, and contact information. Aside from that, make sure the website is secure. At the top left-hand side of every domain, it should always start with ‘https’. The ‘s’ means secure. If you do not see that in any of these domains, do not buy from that website because it means that the information is not secure.”

But that doesn't mean you should only buy from big retailers and avoid mom and pop stores.

Cyber watchdogs say, the bigger businesses are actually bigger targets. Those are the ones the hackers are imitating, impersonating and trying to trick you into believing it to be them. So, it's not important for the hacker to go after a small local business. It's really better for them to pretend to be Amazon or Nike or Apple.

So, watch for imitation websites. 

When you’re checking out a website, start looking at the address and what it really says. Just because it has the word Amazon in the name, does not mean it's an Amazon site. Cyber thieves buy domain names that are just one letter off from the real name or that have other words added into the url like www.amazondealzs.com

Also, professional looking photos do not mean it's a real offer. Scammers steal photos from legitimate sites and use them to sell inferior products. So, ask for detailed information to ensure that what you see is what you'll get.

And that's a reminder to be wary of great deals on popular products.

Galvan says, "Scammers like to put items that are in high demand at way cheaper prices to get you to buy them. So, for example, if you see the new X-box or the PS5 or the iPhone 12 way under retail value, it's most likely a scam.”

Also, never click on email links or strange links on a website.

That's how thieves can hack your computer and get personal information. Randy Watkins of Cyber Security firm CriticalStart says, “They can also reach out and say things like, ‘unfortunately your payment didn't go through, so that $4,000 dollar TV that you thought you got for a $1,000 couldn't be processed, please provide us with your credit card information’.” https://www.criticalstart.com/

When you are ready to buy always use a credit card.

Stay away from cash transfer apps, prepaid money cards, or wire transfers. Galvan explains, using a credit card instead of these other forms of payment, is not only more secure, but your dispute process tends to be a little faster than a traditional bank.

And here are two more tips:

When you’re ready to check out and you’re asked to register, sign out as a guest, because you don’t want your information stored on that site.  It makes you vulnerable if the company is hacked.

Finally, when you’re buying online, you are also vulnerable to shipping scams. If a company you don’t know calls or emails about a delivery, don’t respond. Contact the business directly.

And even if you do know the shipper or vendor, don’t click on any email links they may send.  Go to the company’s website and input your tracking information there to make sure it’s for real. Sometimes scammers will send emails that look like they are coming from a legitimate business.