With the remarkable surge of online shopping (RIP shopping mall), I've been asked for advice on staying safe while shopping online. Here are some simple suggestions that can make a big difference.
While you were busy digesting turkey and playing with your smartphone, something big thing happened in American culture. According to Adobe Systems, more people shopped online than in stores on Black Friday this year, a remarkable digital milestone. And, as you might imagine, a disaster for old-fashioned stores.
It’s time to roll the credits on the era of big shopping malls.
My first job was in a big mall in Paramus, New Jersey, and I suspect many of you reading this have a similar story. When I wasn’t working, I was trying to chat up girls from my high school as they shopped. Or I roamed the alleys between stores with friends just checking out the world around me, killing time until the $5 I had left over from bus fare could be put to good use buying a sundae at Friendly’s. Shopping malls were my Main Street. Eventually they became climate-controlled, hermetically sealed cities-within-cities, complete with their own casinolike control of sunlight. Now, the sun is setting on malls.
Sure, there are billions more dollars to wrest out of consumers before the final Big Box store becomes a Big Empty Box. Folks still spent more dollars in stores than online this weekend. But we all know which ways those lines are headed. Heck, half of online shoppers used their smartphones this year, Adobe said. People don’t even need to get up from their couch and amble over to their desk to do their holiday shopping. For the ultimate impulse buy, consumers can whip out their phones and purchase something during a 30-second commercial.
I don’t believe this is a good or a bad thing, by the way. Having seen the ill-timed monstrosity that is New Jersey’s Xanadu shopping mall/ghost town, I would never stand on the side of these Meccas to consumerism. I do think I learned more hanging out at the mall than teenagers today learn hanging out online, but that’s up for debate. There’s certainly as much trouble to be found in a mall parking lot as in a Snapchat message.
But I’m sure we should all pause for a moment to mark the moment.
Soapbox pushed aside, I’ve been asked by plenty of folks to offer advice on staying safe while shopping online. Since more than 100 million Americans are shopping online now, I might have a few suggestions to offer that you haven’t seen in other places.
1. Update your software first
If you’re human, you probably postpone critical software updates and security patches because they seem to arrive at inconvenient times. Now’s a good time to pause and make sure those antivirus definitions are up to date. You’re about to sling your credit card all over tarnation; put on a decent life jacket before you head out on the lake.
2. Two-factor authentication
Plenty of places where you shop frequently will ask you to register so you can check out more quickly. That’s fine, but of course it means a criminal can also check out more quickly with your credentials. Two-factor authentication is a great tool to stop this. Most banks now offer it, and some retailers are finally offering their own version. Amazon.com just added it, for example (Wired explains how to use it here). Basically, it means you won’t be able to buy something at Amazon without taking a tiny extra confirmation step, usually via a cellphone text message or app. It’s worth the small hassle.
3. Use only one credit card
This is the one time of year that many people blow through the traditional “only shop at name-brand websites” advice. Heck, if you want to make a bobblehead of your boyfriend, you want to make a bobblehead of your boyfriend. OK, the next best thing is to use only one of your various credit cards while shopping online. That will make it easier to spot fraud if (when!) if happens. And don’t forget: Fighting fraud is more about limiting the damage than prevention.
4. Research — and coupons
When you do use those smaller websites, always do a little research. It’s so easy. Do an Internet search for “BobbleHeadsAreUS.RU” (or whatever the website where you may make a purchase) and “complaint.” It’s amazing what you’ll find. And while you’re at it — assuming the site checks out — do an Internet search for “BobbleHeadsAreUs.RU” and “coupon.” I never buy anything without performing those two searches.
5. Enable text alerts
Back to your credit card settings. I am a big fan of allowing your bank to text you every time there’s a transaction on your credit card. It’s a fantastic way to make sure everything’s legit. Meanwhile, it’s also a great way to remind yourself how much you are overspending. Getting too many text alerts? The solution ISN’T turning off the texts.
What’s your fraud-fighting strategy? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.