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How to Combine Caution with Convenience When Shopping Online For Gifts


By Keisa Sharpe-Jefferson

The Birmingham Times

Even during inflation, economists expect sales from the 2023 holiday shopping season to meet and exceed previous years due in large part to consumers shopping online.

Consider that it’s hard to top the convenience that comes from shopping online from the comfort of your home to making trips to brick-and-mortar locations.

But security experts warn not to become too lax when purchasing gifts from home.

Here’s a list of tips from area experts to help you stay safe while shopping online this holiday season.

First and most importantly, “make sure the website is a secure site,” says Dr. Ragib Hasan, Computer Science Professor and Director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Center for Cyber Security. “A lot of cyber criminals set up fake websites or sites that differ slightly from the real website,” he said.

Dr. Hasan advises shoppers to visit the retailer’s website directly and type in the online address. Avoid getting to the site by clicking on links sent via emails, which are often nothing more than phishing attempts, which is a criminal’s tactic to secure your personal information.

Ragib Hassan, Director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Center for Cyber Security.

Second, when purchasing products online, Dr. Hasan says, “it’s a great idea to use a credit card rather than a debit card because with a credit card, people get lots of extra protection from fraud.”

Jeff Taylor, head of commercial fraud forensics for Regions Bank, doubles down on some of those suggestions. For example, “A site you’re buying from should have “https” in the web address. If it doesn’t, don’t enter your information,” he said.

Taylor added that consumers should check their statements regularly and contact their credit card company immediately if they see a suspicious transaction.

Jeff Taylor, head of commercial fraud forensics for Regions Bank

Whereas with debit cards and direct payment sites (like Zelle, for instance), Hasan says money is taken out of your account immediately and it will likely take a lengthier time, and possibly be more difficult, to recover funds. He likens these modes of payment to “giving someone cash or a check. As soon as you give it to them, it’s gone. And with debit cards, not all banks provide full protection.”

For an added layer of protection, Dr. Hasan advises online shoppers to check out the company’s rating on the Better Business Bureau (BBB). “In some cases, it’s not that it’s a fake company, but they (the company’s workers) have a horrible reputation. If you’re buying from a company that you’ve never dealt with before, it might be a good idea to see their BBB rating, especially if it’s a big-ticket item.”

And for those who turn to social networking sites to make purchase (like Facebook, for example), Dr. Hasan reminds shoppers to be on the lookout for “deals that are really too good to be true.”

He says this is a common scam. “They (criminals) provide a massive discount on social media, through a link, to attract people, and once you buy something from them and pay, let’s say $20-dollars, they’ll actually ship something to you that costs $.10-cents or only a dollar … (but) by the time you get it in a month or so, it’ll be too late to recover your money.”

Dr. Ben Meadows, Asst. Professor of Economics, Collat School of Business.

And for those who plan to travel this holiday, Hasan issues another caution. “Be careful whenever you are renting a room or a house through Airbnb or sites like that, always check the reputation of the host,” he said.

Ben Meadows, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Economics, Collat School of Business, said even with the threat of cyber criminals and these safety tips, arm yourself with some key knowledge to have an overall enjoyable holiday shopping experience.

“Be aware of inflation. Do your research. (The good news is that) this does seem like maybe the first holiday (since Covid) where we’re returning to a little bit of a sense of normality,” Meadows said.

If you are a victim of or spot a scam, report it to the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov or 877-FTC-HELP (382-4357).