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Five tips to keep your online shopping secure this holiday season

Billions of dollars are expected to be spent online during the upcoming holiday season. More people will be using their smartphones to shop this year. Here are some ways to shop safely.

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    In this 2011 photo, an Associated Press reporter demonstrates an app for shopping on her smartphone, in San Francisco.
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    Security expert Nitin Bhandari, senior vice-president of products for Opera Software Solutions, is seen in this courtesy photo.
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The only thing easier than holiday shopping via smartphone is getting robbed on Cyber Monday by failing to follow five easy cyber security rules.

Cyber Monday is expected to yield record sales of $3 billion according to Adobe's Digital Index, which released its annual online holiday shopping predictions this week. Online sales for the holiday season are expected to be a record-breaking $83 billion, an increase of 11 percent over last year. Security experts say that many of those purchases are going to be made via smartphone over unsecured, free WiFi.

Nitin Bhandari, CEO of Skyfire and senior vice president of products for Opera Software Solutions, makers of a popular web browser, is worried about consumers “who choose convenience over security” when making their holiday purchases.

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“My nightmare scenario would be to see someone connecting to a WiFi network of unknown origin (like a coffee shop or airport lounge) on a website that has a broken [security signature] lock symbol on the browser and it’s some kind of a link the shopper clicked on based on a Google search for a bargain with some seller you’ve never heard of before,” says Mr. Bhandari in an interview. “So right there you’re just exposed on so many levels! You’re exposed at the WiFi level, at the unknown merchant level, and not encrypted or VPN.”

Bhandari says, “Cyber crime by way of credit card theft costs US consumers billions of dollars a year,”

“The holidays can be stressful enough without adding identity theft and credit card fraud into the mix,” he says. “Follow these rules and you have a much better chance of having a happy, crime-free season.”

  1. Look over your shoulder. When in public spaces, be careful not to expose your computer or mobile screen to the eyes of strangers, especially when a credit card number is visible. “People still do it no matter how much you warn them,” he laments.
  2. Choose security over convenience by not giving in to the urge to hook in to free WiFi at a coffee shop, airport or mall. “You want WiFi with end-to-end encryptions and with these, you never know if it’s the real company behind that connection or a hacker sitting nearby offering a fake,” he says.
  3. Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) in your browser while you shop online both at home and when using a phone or tablet. Opera is one of several companies offering free VPN extensions for browsers. Many competitors offer similar services.
  4. Check websites for a padlock symbol. Bhandari says that many websites do not properly protect the data they collect. Shoppers know the site is safe if it has a lock icon in the address bar, which signifies that your connection to the website and all of its components is secure.
  5. When shopping online, always make sure your browser and operating systems are up to date on all devices being used. Even if a consumer conducts all transactions on a secure site, it is possible for the computer to be compromised by viruses or malware, which put users at risk of data theft.

The FBI also offers a list for holiday shoppers on its website which cautions buyers to beware of online scams including: fraudulent auction sales, reshipping merchandise purchased with a stolen credit card, sale of fraudulent or stolen gift cards through auction sites at discounted prices, and phishing e-mails advertising brand name merchandise for bargain prices or e-mails promoting counterfeit products.

Even when offline, Bhandari says that he recommends using credit cards over ATM or debit cards that do not have a security computer chip, especially when buying from vendors using card-swiping devices on phones or tablets.

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“Never swipe with someone you don’t know and trust completely,” he cautions. “Don’t forget to frequently monitor bank statements for suspicious transactions. Many times, cyber theft is done in small amounts of $10 and $20 in order not to draw suspicion.”  

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