How to protect yourself from scams while enjoying the perks of the worldwide cyber-mall
By Lola Augustine Brown
For many, online shopping has been a godsend over the past two years. With a few clicks of your mouse, you can order groceries, clothing, crafting supplies, books and whatever else you desire without leaving the comfort of your sofa. But as easy as it is to shop online, it can be equally easy to fall prey to scams and open yourself up to risk.
“Forty-one percent of Canadians believe it’s unlikely their personal information could be compromised online,” says Janny Bender Asselin, a spokesperson for the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security. “However, at some point, most Canadians will encounter activity aimed at convincing them to give up their personal information for malicious purposes.” This doesn’t mean you’re destined to get ripped off, just that there’s a strong possibility you’re going to encounter some kind of nefarious activity at some point.
“It can be absolutely safe to shop online—once you take a few steps to protect yourself and your transactions,” says Canadian tech expert and television personality Amber Mac. “The best way to do this is to do research before you shop.” With the following tips, you can help ensure your online shopping transactions are safe—in the run-up to the holiday season and beyond.
Shop the brands you know
Having the luxury to buy nearly anything online is wonderful, but too wide an array of merchants sometimes poses a problem. Not every retailer is legitimate, so you’re safest sticking with brands you know or those that have strong online presences. Mac says she buys from only a few specific companies, “including a major grocery chain, some local businesses I trust and larger, well-known online retailers.”
Before you type your credit card details into any online checkout form, make sure the website is legit. “Spoofed sites—imitations of well-known ones—are increasingly looking like the real thing, which makes it easier for scammers to steal funds and personal information,” warns Bender Asselin. Though similar to the originals, spoofed sites usually have differences that are quite obvious once you know what to watch for. For example, their online addresses—known as URLs—may differ from those of the legit sites by only one letter, or they may end in domain names different from the standard .com and .ca.
“While scammers are getting better, watch out for not quite professional-looking websites that have typos and that display graphics and logos similar to those used by trusted retailers, but of lower visual quality,” says Bender Asselin. A good indicator that a site is legit and has proper security measures in place is the padlock symbol in the search bar, directly before the URL. This means the organization uses encryption coding to protect your credit card numbers and other personal information. Luckily, most online searches for a store’s virtual site will lead you to the legitimate web page; plus, browsers including Google often have filters to warn you if a site is suspected to be fraudulent.
Recognize email and social-media shopping scams
In contrast to the relative ease of verifying virtual storefronts, there are few such protections regarding links sent by email, even when the sender appears to be a trusted contact or brand. Always check the originating address—if it looks odd in any way, assume it’s not to be trusted. Beware, too, of posts and ads on social media, which are awash with questionably good offers for high-end products at a fraction of their retail prices. “While it might be tempting to click on a link in an email or Facebook ad,” Mac says, “if you don’t know the company, you might be taking a risk. It’s best to search for the website yourself to verify whether it’s a legitimate deal.”
If you’re still not sure, Mac advises that you “ask someone you trust for their opinion on whether a site looks legitimate. It’s worth a few minutes of homework to save you from a lifetime of problems.” Phishing emails—which appear to be from lawful organizations, but which often include links to pages that request personal information such as banking passwords and social insurance numbers—are another tool used by online scammers.
Legitimate businesses rarely ask for confirmations in this manner. “Never click on links in these emails,” says Bender Asselin. “Instead, take a few minutes to research the seller.”
Beware fake goods
Unfortunately, fake goods aren’t limited to fake sites. A massive 2019 investigation by The Wall Street Journal found that Amazon had been selling thousands upon thousands of fake, banned, potentially unsafe and mislabelled products. The journalistic deep dive revealed that, once akin to an online big box store, Amazon had grown into a haven for third-party sellers, with few regulations in place.
Still, there are ways to establish whether a particular item on Amazon, Etsy and other large resellers is legit. Price is often the best indicator: as always, if it sounds like a steal, it may well be. Online reviews can also help separate the wheat from the chaff. Moreover, in Amazon’s case, verifying a product is sold directly by the company— look for the “Fulfilled by Amazon” indicator—can help confirm legitimacy.
While shopping safely online is ultimately the consumer’s responsibility, you can take steps to help ensure you’re buying what you think you’re buying—and from whom you think is selling it. “By taking your time, doing your research and being vigilant about safeguarding your information, your online shopping experience can be smoother and even more enjoyable than going to the mall,” Bender Asselin says.
Securing Against, Security Breaches
While risks are always a possibility when shopping online, Canadian Centre for Cyber Security spokesperson Janny Bender Asselin insists that, generally speaking, buying from well-known websites and online businesses is very safe. “However,” she cautions, “even large enterprises are not immune to security breaches.” A report earlier this year from IBM Security reinforced that fact: It revealed that data breaches were at an all-time high worldwide—no doubt helped along by pandemic-related escalations in online working, spending and communication, often without the requisite protections in place—with an average price tag of roughly US$5.4 million ($6.8 million) per breach for affected companies in Canada. And of course, each cybersecurity breakdown leaves customer data exposed.
So help to keep your information safe when shopping online by heeding these tips from the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security:
➻ Opt out of leaving your financial information on file for future purchases from online retailers, despite the perceived convenience.
➻ When setting up a password for an online retailer, never select one you already use elsewhere. “Choose unique and strong passwords for each account, so if your information is compromised, your other accounts remain safe,” Bender Asselin says.
➻ Have a separate credit card with a low purchase limit for online shopping; this will help minimize the potential financial damage resulting from any security breaches.