Writing by John Nicholas 

The pandemic should keep us at home more this year than in holiday seasons past. That will likely mean more online shopping, virtual visits to relatives and more time on our devices. With that will come additional cybersecurity risks. 

Here are some ways to reduce your exposure to these risks.

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1. Update your system and apps.  

The first thing to do is cover the basics. Play defense first: update your system and all of your apps, update all of your browsers, install and/or update anti-virus software and use a virtual private network (VPN) on all of your devices.

2. Avoid limited bargains and deals.

If the deal sounds too good to be true, then there is a catch. Resist the temptation to impulse-buy through an advertisement on social media. If you see a product that you think will make a good gift, research the vendor before you buy and take your time in doing so.

3. Beware the sender.

You will see a slew of email offers from companies you don’t recognize, and even those that you do know. It is hard to tell which are legitimate offers and which contain a malicious link or an attachment. If you receive an email that has a good deal from a known vendor, visit their site directly, do not click the link nor download the attachment.

4. Use a credit card, not a debit card.

If you are a victim of fraud, your credit card has built-in protections. You should not owe money to the credit card company. Your debit card will require you to file a claim, and while you should get your money back, it is a hassle to do so.

5. Use a separate credit card for online purchases.

Using a “holiday only” credit card with a low limit for shopping online. If your information is stolen, the damage will be minimal.

6. Verify security on vendor websites.

Look in the address bar of your browser. If it does not have a lock and/or say “https,” then do not enter any personal information on that site. Look for seals of approval from agencies like the Better Business Bureau to confirm a vendor’s reputation. If this information is not readily available, be safe and consider purchasing the product elsewhere.

7. Read the return policies.

Remember, you’re buying this item sight unseen and it will be transported to you. There are many opportunities for something to go wrong. Make sure you know how the vendor handles returns.

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8. Keep your receipts.

All reputable vendors will email you a sales confirmation post-purchase. Keep these emails and keep all of the paperwork that arrives with the gift.

9. Don’t reuse passwords.

You will be buying gifts from a plethora of vendors, all of whom will want you to register for a more convenient shopping experience. Once you have used a password for one vendor, do not use it anywhere else. If one of those vendors gets hacked, the hackers will have your password for all of the other sites for which you used it.

10. Use multiple web browsers.

Depending on how tight you have your security settings, your personally identifiable information may be stored in the browser cache. To be safe, use one browser for surfing and another for purchasing items. For that, I recommend Brave Browser, which is designed with privacy in mind.

11. Wipe out your old data.

You may get or give a new electronic device this holiday season, which means you will be getting rid of an old device. Make sure you erase all of your personal data and log out from all services and apps. Once you have done that, reset the device per the manufacturer’s instructions.

12. Be smart.

We all are in a hurry to get our shopping done and we all want great deals. Cyber criminals are counting on you to impulse buy, click on a bogus link or download an attachment to an email. If you follow the tips above, you should have a safe online shopping experience.

I would like to hear your questions and concerns for future articles. You can reach me at jbnicholasphd@gmail.com.

Dr. John B. Nicholas is a Professor of Computer Information Systems and Co-Founder of the Cybersecurity Degree Track at The University of Akron. Dr. Nicholas has over 30 years experience in the technology field in both the private sector and higher education.

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