Every year about this time I have to reassess the Internet Christmas shopping situation. Billions of dollars in electronic form are flying down wires, bouncing to and from orbiting satellites, through the air and across the Internet, more this time of year than any other. This keeps the Internet bad guys busy, too, working on newer ways to steal your money.
More than ever, it is critical that you have safe backups of your files. That means you have separate copies of all your important family photos, financial documents, medical records, spreadsheets, tax returns, etc., kept on separate devices like external hard drives and online backup services like Carbonite. That’s the only defense you have against Ransomeware attacks, where the Internet bad guys encrypt your files and hold them hostage for ransom. That’s the only thing that saved the City of San Francisco last year when its municipal transportation agency was taken over for three days by Internet criminals. Fortunately, the City had its files backed up. Otherwise, it would have been very, very bad.
“Scareware” (software designed to scare you into doing something) is still a big problem this season. There you are, merrily bouncing from one shopping website to the next, when, suddenly, a windows pops up telling you various lies, such as your computer has multiple viruses, needs new “drivers,” “registry errors” have been found, or the FBI has scanned your computer and is fining you for illegal activity. The bad guys are hoping these scams will scare you into paying them for phony repairs or protection you don’t really need. To learn how to thwart scareware scams, read the column on my website titled, “Careful where you click,” from March, 2011.
Fake shopping apps are becoming a problem, too, as more people mindlessly move their online shopping from semi-secure desktop and laptop computers to completely insecure “smart” phones. The only “smart” thing about these phones is that they help smart online crooks trick honest folks into installing bogus “help you shop” apps, thereby moving money from your account to theirs in a very smart way.
Watch out for scams on social networking sites like Facebook. Bogus “work from home to make extra holiday money” scams are turning up everywhere. Look out for fake “gift cards” and phony “gift exchange” scams that are also infesting all the social networking websites, not just Facebook.
As always, due diligence must still be taken. Keep your computer updated and patched. Use current, updated antivirus software. Beware of where you click. Research companies with which you wish to do business. Never answer or click on links found in unsolicited emails. Don’t believe emails claiming that UPS, the USPS or FedEx are trying to deliver a package to you, or owe you a refund. Remember that your bank, as well as eBay, Paypal, Amazon and your Internet service provider will never send you an email saying, “You need to visit our website and update your personal information.”
Use strong passwords, and keep them secret. Use a Web browser (the program you use to visit websites) that complies with Internet security standards, and that lets you easily access it’s safety settings, such as Mozilla’s Firefox. Don’t pay for online purchases using checks, money orders or bank debit cards. Instead, use PayPal or credit cards which offer anti-fraud protection; at least those purchases are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act.
If you pay bills or send any personal information using U.S. Mail, deposit that mail in collection boxes, rather than in the mailbox at your house. The lady who brings the U.S. Mail to my neighborhood actually stopped recently and asked me if I had seen any suspicious people in the neighborhood. Turns out a gang of crooks had been raiding local mailboxes, stealing checks and bills, which can lead crooks to accounts and cash.
Finally, keep printed records of all of your purchases. Play it safe, and have a happy Internet shopping holiday.