The National Retail Federation estimates holiday sales this year will total about $586.1 billion, a 4.1 percent increase over last year. Of those holiday sales, $96 billion, or perhaps as much as $100 billion will be generated online, 12 percent more than the 2011 holiday season.
That being the case, and the likelihood that you will be buying on the Internet, your highest priority should be to keep yourself and your personal information as safe as possible. To that end, our first warning comes from the Federal Communications Commission which cannot stress more emphatically that there is a huge danger that personal information may be stolen if you are connecting to the Web over an unsecure Wi-Fi connection.
Yes, it is great that many coffee emporiums, public libraries, hotels, airports, shopping malls, etc. make low-cost or free broadband service available. Have you gotten to the airport too early? Why not pass the time by jumping online and putting a dent in the holiday gift list.
Perhaps that is a poor idea says the FCC. "In using these networks," the FCC says, "it is important to understand that information being transmitted over them can potentially be intercepted if the networks are not secure."
The FCC says consumers must be aware of whether they are using a secure (encrypted) or unsecure (unencrypted) network. If it's the latter, be very wary of transmitting personal information. You may be much safer using the direct Web access on your Smartphone (via a 3G/4G connection) than an unsecured wireless network on your tablet or laptop.
ITAC, the Identity Theft Assistance Center, has also published tips on how consumers can stay safe while shopping online this holiday season. We have seen many of these suggestions previously, but a few more are worth remembering.
- When in Doubt, Throw it Out. Links in posts, emails, tweets, and online advertising are often the way cybercriminals compromise your computer. Even if you know the source, if it looks suspicious it's best to delete or mark as junk mail.
- Make Sure the Site is Legitimate. This includes a padlock on your Web browser's address bar or a URL address that begins with shttp or https. These indicate that the purchase is encrypted or secured. For new sites, check online reviews.
- Keep a Paper Trail. Save records of your online transactions, including the product description, price, online receipt, terms of the sale, and copies of email exchanges with the seller. Read your credit card statements as soon as you receive them to make sure there aren't any unauthorized changes. If there is a discrepancy, call your bank and report it immediately.
- Finally, that old adage that remains true: if it looks too good to be true, it likely is.