Think before you click when buying gifts online

By: Jennifer Sigouin | Royal Oak Review | Published December 2, 2015

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METRO DETROIT — The National Retail Federation estimates that almost half of all holiday shopping this year will be done with a click of a button rather than a trip to the mall, but while buying gifts online is convenient, it also comes with a few risks that could make your season not so merry and bright.

“So many people get so busy that they don’t think about the what-ifs,” said Melanie Duquesnel, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Eastern Michigan in Southfield.

No one wants to deal with the repercussions of identity theft and online scams, especially during the busy holiday season, but consumers can stay safe by shopping smart. 

‘Protect your information’
One of the first steps toward safe online shopping is to make sure that the site you’re shopping on is secure. 

According to Duquesnel, a secure site will have a URL beginning with “https” — with the “s” signifying that it’s secure — or will show a “lock” icon somewhere in your browser window. She said it’s not just important, but “imperative” that a site has these basic security features so that the information you provide — which could include your name, address, phone number, PayPal credentials and credit card numbers — won’t be stolen.

A consumer alert issued by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office also warns shoppers not to provide their Social Security numbers to online retailers. 

“Reputable online merchants should never require you to submit your Social Security number when making a purchase,” the alert states. “Unnecessarily providing your Social Security number puts you at great risk of becoming a victim of identity theft; and, as a general rule, it is never necessary to provide your Social Security number when making an online purchase.”

According to Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham, thwarting identity thieves has become a concern for local law enforcement not just during the holidays, but year-round. 

“Once they have a good data set, they can wreak havoc on your credit,” Wickersham said.

Wickersham advised shoppers to change the passwords to online accounts on occasion, as well as to install anti-virus software and make sure it’s up to date. He added that it’s safer to use a credit card rather than a debit card for online transactions. 

“Just be smart,” he said. “Protect your information.”

Research and report
Duquesnel emphasized that if you’re shopping on a website that you’ve never heard of or visited, you should do some research to find out if it’s a website that’s reputable and one that consumers have experience with. 

She noted that the BBB has an online portal called Scam Tracker, where consumers can learn about current scams in their area — searchable by ZIP code — or they can report a scam that has happened to them. 

“We actually look at this every day and make sure that if there’s something awful, we contact local law enforcement,” she said. 

Shoppers can also look for the BBB seal on a website, but they should note whether the seal is dynamic — meaning it’s clickable and links to the BBB — or static. 

“When a shopper is online and they click on the (BBB) seal and it doesn’t go to a BBB online review, beware,” Duquesnel said, explaining that scammers will sometimes put a BBB logo on their site to make it look like it’s BBB-accredited when it’s actually not.  

A BBB-approved consumer review, she added, will provide more accurate information on a business or product than some other reviews found elsewhere online. 

“Customer reviews aren’t always what they seem to be,” she said, noting that 15 to 20 percent of online reviews are estimated to be fake, meaning that they’re either computer-generated or are written by someone who was paid to do so.

“Before we publish any consumer review, we verify that there was an actual marketplace transaction,” she said. 

Schuette’s consumer alert also notes that “legitimate businesses will advertise a physical location and at least one customer service phone number that you can contact if you have a problem with your order.” 

“Keep in mind that just because a company provides you with a physical location and phone number does not necessarily mean that the company is legitimate,” the alert states. “You should still research unfamiliar companies before placing an order.”

Shoppers can view recent consumer alerts or file a complaint about a business by visiting the Michigan attorney general’s website at www.michigan.gov/ag and clicking on “Consumer Protection.” 

Click with caution
Another concern, Duquesnel said, are text and email alerts from random, unfamiliar retailers. While text and email messages are becoming a popular way for shoppers to learn about deals from their favorite stores, the BBB says not to click on a link if you don’t know who it’s from or it’s not something you’ve signed up for. 

According to a BBB press release, clicking on an unsafe link could expose you to a scam known as phishing, in which hackers use text and email to access your personal information or even your computer. 

“Around the holidays, beware of e-cards and messages purporting to be from companies like UPS, Federal Express or major retailers with links to package tracking information,” the BBB advises in the press release. “Don’t click on any links or open any attachments to emails until you have confirmed that they are not malicious. Some emails can infect your computer with a virus or download malware if you click a link.”

The content of a message could be a red flag as well. 

“Be suspicious of emails that are sent that are offering great deals,” added Wickersham. “One thing we stress is that if it’s too good to be true, it usually is.”

For more consumer safety tips, visit the BBB online at www.bbb.org. 

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