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Net Watchdog: Tips for Safer Online Shopping

The holidays are almost upon us, and online shopping is about to go into overdrive. An estimated 114 million consumers will turn to the Internet for at least part of their holiday shopping this year, according to Jupiter Research. With the rush comes increased risk of identity theft, credit card fraud, and other types of online consumer scams, experts warn.

Already, scams involving the hard-to-find TMX Elmo toy are circulating around the Internet. At several online forums, shoppers are complaining about eBay sellers taking money for the popular toy, and then vanishing before delivering the goods. Similarly, Sony Computer Entertainment America is warning online shoppers not to purchase preorder discount offers for the gaming console PlayStation 3 from certain Web sites that are misleading consumers.

"People spend more time and money online this time of year," says David Perry, director of global education for Trend Micro. Scammers, he says, know this all too well and fine-tune their scams to catch holiday shoppers off guard.

Perry says people let their defenses down during the rush to buy gifts. He cautions against having too much holiday "good will" when shopping online, and notes that there tends to be an uptick in scams, spam, and malware attacks during the holiday season. MX Logic reports that during the months of September through November e-mail recipients clicked on an average of 12 to 26 phishing messages a week, compared to an average of 7 per week during the rest of the year. MX Logic attributes increased clicks to an onslaught of holiday-related spam containing phishing lures.

Consumer groups such as the Better Business Bureau and Consumer Affairs are also warning shoppers to take extra care.

Tips for Safe Online Holiday Shopping

  • Update your Web browsing software.

The latest versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox have been updated to include beefed-up security. Both include antiphishing features to protect against fake sites that attempt to trick users into divulging their log-ins or financial information.

Firefox's default protection stops at comparing sites against a known blacklist of phishing sites. IE 7 includes site analysis that will try to warn you about a suspicious site even if it's not yet on a blacklist.

  • Scrutinize that e-mail message that purports to be from your favorite retailer.

Volumes of spam spike considerably over the holidays, and with that increase come higher volumes of phishing e-mail, says Mary McEvoy, spokesperson for the Internet security firm SonicWall. Last year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, 750 million phishing e-mails were sent worldwide, SonicWall reported.

MX Logic says the volume of spam from legitimate online retailers jumps 20 percent between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And what about ill-intentioned spam? MX Logic says the difference between this year and last is that a greater percentage of spam this year is malicious, rather than simply being a nuisance.

Experts advise keeping your guard up even when you receive e-mails from familiar firms like Amazon.com and Lands' End. Cybercrooks are getting more cunning at making their messages look legit: That e-mail from Amazon asking you to update your billing information or confirm your order could be a fake.

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