Safe Holiday Shopping

Despite the recession, the National Retail Federation estimates consumers will spend nearly $450…

Georgia (Nov 23, 2010)

Despite the recession, the National Retail Federation estimates consumers will spend nearly $450 billion on gifts this holiday season – about two percent more than last year.   
More consumers are shopping online to find the perfect gift, often at lower prices and with free shipping. But the Internet also attracts thieves and scammers who have created ingenious ways to steal shoppers’ money and identity, especially during the busiest buying season of the year. 
Jennifer Priestley, associate professor of statistics at KSU’s College of Science and Mathematics, warns that making online purchases can invite fraud and identity theft. She especially cautions against using debit cards to make those purchases.
 Priestley, a consumer credit card expert who worked for 10 years with Visa and MasterCard, says the best way to make purchases is with a credit card. “There is a firewall between your credit card and your checking account; they are not connected,” she said. “If you use your debit card on a non-secure site, it is not just your card account information that is compromised – it’s your checking account. And it’s easy for crooks to wipe out all your money.”
The major payment companies offer a higher level of protection on purchases with credit cards than with debit cards. For example, MasterCard provides coverage for most items damaged or stolen within 90 days of the date of purchase. Visa, American Express and Discover also similar protection. Banks may or may not choose to offer this level of protection on debit card purchases.
Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes. According to the Federal Trade Commission, about 10 million people a year become victims. One of the most successful methods used to steal identity is by e-mail. The most common scam is an emotional request from a Nigerian citizen begging for assistance with an unclaimed estate. These scammers send out millions of e-mails each month waiting for those naive or greedy enough to respond.
“Unfortunately, those e-mails cost almost nothing to send out and if even one or two people respond, it was worth the effort. The bandits gain access to personal accounts that are full of valuable information,” Priestley said. “Using your debit card online is potentially just as bad as responding to these fraudulent e-mails – it puts your checking account out there for all to see.”
Priestley also warns about phishing, a practice in which thieves send an e-mail or text message asking the recipient to click on a link to update personal information or passwords. When unsuspecting e-mail users respond, the thieves steal personal data. Researchers estimate 3 million consumers are tricked out of more than $1 billion every year with phishing scams.
Shoppers surfing the web for great deals should also be careful of fraudulent websites that proliferate during the holiday season. Criminals create dummy websites that look like the real thing but are set up to steal information.  Experts caution consumers to make sure a site is secure before making purchases. Information exchanged with any address beginning with https is encrypted, which is more secure.
Public and free Wi-Fi networks are almost everywhere, especially at malls, cafés, hotels and airports.  Tech-savvy crooks have Wi-Fi scanners that can read messages and information as they are transmitted. “Using these types of networks can expose everything on your computer to any hacker in the area,” Priestley said.
                The latest trend is shopping on social networking websites, which have an estimated 500 million users. More companies are targeting consumers on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Criminals are also using social sites to collect information with phony pages infected with malicious viruses.
                “The safest way to shop and avoid all of the scams is to pay with cash,” Priestley said. Consumers should also exercise caution when using automated teller machines. “While ATMs are convenient, they also provide another way for criminals to access your money.” Priestley suggests only using ATMs attached to actual banks. “Never ever use the ATMs at the mall. It’s too easy for crooks to watch you enter your PIN number and steal your card number. They take your information, make fake cards and then pull out all your cash.”
When shoppers hit the malls and log onto their computers, so do the crooks.
 Priestley offers these tips to help keep shoppers safe:
  • Protect Personal Computers
    • Install up-to-date anti-virus and spyware protection
    • Use a firewall when browsing the Internet
    • Never access personal information or make purchases in a public place
  • Protect Passwords
    • Never share passwords
    • Avoid using easy-to-guess common words or personal information
    • Change passwords every 90 days
    • Use a unique password for each online account
  • Use Credit NOT Debit Cards
    • Credit cards provide personal protection against unauthorized purchases
    • Consumers can dispute purchases before paying for it
    • A thief can wipe out a checking or savings account
  • Make Copies of Credit and Debit Cards
    • Copy both sides of all cards to have easy access to account numbers and customer service numbers
  • Avoid Fraudulent Websites
    • Secure websites will have “https” in the URL
  • Watch Out for Phishing Scams
    • Be careful of e-mails or text messages asking you to click on a link to update personal information
  • Do Not Use Public Wi-Fi for Online Shopping
    • Entering sensitive information when using a public Wi-Fi connection is risky 
  • Protect Information on Social Networking Sites
    • Restrict access to personal pages using built-in privacy settings
  • Only Use ATMs Connected to a Bank
    • Do NOT use ATMs at malls
    • Guard PIN numbers at the ATM
    • Thieves install devices that read personal information


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit