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Sunday, June 4, 2023

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Online Holiday Shopping Safety

Q&A with SDSU cybersecurity expert Lance Larson.
By Susanne Clara Bard

Many shoppers are seeking out good deals this inflationary holiday season. The best prices can often be found online but cyber scammers are also armed with a variety of tactics to separate us from our money.


Lance Larson is co-director of San Diego State University's graduate program in Homeland Security. NewsCenter’s Susanne Clara Bard asked the cybersecurity expert what to watch out for when it comes to online scams. 


Why do we sometimes fall for online shopping scams and what are some common scams this holiday season?


Online scams and fraud are a billion-dollar problem. In fact, Federal Trade Commission data shows that consumers reported losing more than $5.8 billion to fraud in 2021, an increase of more than 70% over the previous year. As a college professor at SDSU, I have found that scammers have learned to tug at our students’ heartstrings and have become masters in social engineering. Social engineering is a deceptive tactic used by online scammers to build trust and then manipulate us into falling victim to their scam. Popular scams this holiday season include email phishing, IRS or government imposter scams, digital currency scams, lottery and sweepstakes scams, romance scams, bogus debt scams and many many more.


What are some common online shopping risks?


American consumers are thrifty and we have learned and shared tactics with our friends and family to find the best deal. Unfortunately, finding the best deal online sometimes takes us to areas of the internet with unproven or untrusted merchants, especially within peer-to-peer markets (think Craiglist, Facebook Marketplace, and sometimes eBay). Maybe you forgot to purchase that really important but trendy and popular gift for your best friend? Our normal human safeguards to recognize a potentially suspicious or malicious transaction are lowered when urgency, familiarity, and non-face-to-face transactions enter the picture.


How can consumers protect themselves from online scams in the first place?


A few ways you can help recognize a suspicious marketplace or transaction:

  • Read reviews for merchants, and avoid merchants with zero or negative reviews, even if they have the best price.  
  • Guard your personal information and use a wallet service like PayPal, Venmo, Zelle, Google Wallet, or Apple Wallet to hide the majority of your personal information.
  • Understand that some deals are too good to be true.
  • Don't allow a seller or merchant to require you to pay outside of an established platform (bank wire transfers, ACH payments, cash). These transactions are nearly impossible to recover once sent.


How can people recover their money if they are scammed online?


Always use traceable payments so that you have a chance of recovery if an online shopping payment transaction goes wrong. Traceable payments are payments that produce a transaction record and have recourse (the possible ability for you to recover the funds you sent). Examples of difficult-to-trace payments include cash, gift cards, MoneyPaks, digital currency (such as Bitcoin), and most cashier’s checks. Examples of easier-to-trace payments are credit cards, PayPal, and Venmo. All too often, the American consumer chooses the "cheapest" but not necessarily the best vendor and product.