Avoiding a Christmas Online Hoax – Top Tips for Evading Cybercrime

This time of year is a flurry of excitement, as retailers prepare for the big dash from consumers to spend their hard earned money. It is a busy time of the year for the highstreet, but also online spending is particularly high at the moment due to Covid. Many people have made the switch to online shopping, as an easier and ‘safer’ alternative to bracing the crowds.

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans are going to spend between $755 and $767 billion in the months of November and December this year, with average spending for presents amounting to $998 per consumer. Wow – what a lot of money being exchanged.

And it is for exactly this reason that cybercrime is particularly high at this time of year. Sadly, cyber criminals prey upon people this Christmas season and the good will of consumers in an attempt to trap people into sending or intercepting their money when they shop online. So much for ‘safer shopping’ – it seems you have more to watch out for when shopping online.

Phishing scams are one kind of online fraud which has become increasingly popular with fraudsters. This is  when a criminal creates something that makes them look like a legitimate worker for a company. For instance, they might set up a fake email account and then they will email you pretending to be in an official capacity. Sometimes it is very difficult to tell this email apart from a legitimate one. They may be asking you for sensitive information, such as bank details, which is then used to commit fraud. Sometimes the emails contain links to click on which takes consumers through to a fake site which looks identical to the official company site. They email this out to a lot of people and hope that a few will fall victim.

This unfortunately has happened to many big companies, whereby the hoaxers mimic the identity of a company and use their good reputation to con innocent people out of their money. An example of this is when fraudsters mimicked the online loan company Wonga emailing and texting South African smartphone owners (whose contact details had come from various data leaks none of which were actually from Wonga so in many cases those contacted actually had never dealt with Wonga before – which should be a red flag for the diligent web browser) asking them to click a link for a really, incredibly too-good-to-be-true loan deal, which asked for an upfront processing fee.

Wonga would not ask for an upfront fee to access credit (like the majority of reputable companies in the loan business) but these scams depend on the inexperience of the target. The fraudsters had replicated their website which looked professional enough that some victims unfortunately believed it was them and paid the money that was requested. Luckily, Wonga had managed to conduct damage control at the time and their fraud hotlines and brand awareness are now a  priority. Unfortunately, many companies suffering similar attacks have not been so lucky, losing customers and brand image as a result of the phishing scam.

It is clear from the example above that you need to be savvy about who you are receiving emails from and who you are giving your details out to. If you have older people in your family that aren’t so switched on, you should check in with them regularly to ensure they have not fallen victim to a really convincing scam either. They may receive fraud communication via email, text or even post.

Knowing what to do if you receive something that looks a bit ‘off’ is really important. For instance, you should never click into a link sent in an email. You should also be wary of any company directly contacting you and asking you to part with your money. Call the official company directly to check if they have contacted you to be sure! This is the same for a great deal you have been asked to pre-pay for, or a competition you have been told you have won, or an inheritance sum which magically seems to have been granted to you. The general rule is, if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

Online scams are becoming increasingly difficult to spot, but there are some tell-tale signs. For instance, usually the email contains spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, or is worded in a slightly unusual way. Sometimes the font appears too small or the logo is outdated. These should be red flags to you. You should also be wary about giving out information about yourself or your accounts over email. Generally a reputable company would not ask for this, so if in doubt, don’t give it out!

You can also keep yourself safe online by using unique passwords – try and use different passwords for each website you use. This makes it much more difficult for a fraudster to access all your accounts. You’ll also want to ensure your anti-virus software on your PC is up to date. Make sure that the web address starts with ‘https’ rather than ‘http’ which means you are on a secure site and your data will be encrypted. This doesn’t guarantee a fraudster can’t access that information, but it will definitely make it harder for them.

So wherever you choose to spend your money this christmas, whether on the highstreet or online, just be careful about how you give out your details and keep an eye on any unauthorised emails that get sent to you. If you are unsure, ask someone else who is tech savvy to check for you as well. It is best to be overly cautious rather than assuming it will be fine. You don’t want to start January on hold to the fraud hotline.

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