It may seem hard to believe, but Cyber Monday — online shopping’s version of Black Friday — is little more than a month away. And even though an estimated 100 million people spent $1 billion on that day last year, it turns out that more than three-quarters of all consumers worry about being ripped off on the Internet.
A joint study between ThreatMetrix, a online fraud-prevention company based in Los Altos. Calif., and the Ponemon Institute, a data-security research firm based in Traverse City, Mich., found that 26 percent of consumers have serious concerns about online fraud, and another 53 percent have some concerns. Those worries may be justified — the study also found that 43 percent of respondents had also been victims of online fraud.
Another digital security firm, German anti-virus software maker Avira, asked visitors to its website the following question: Do you feel secure while shopping online?
Nearly 29 percent said they worried about their information getting into the wrong hands; almost 20 percent say they never shopped online at all. Another 23 percent only shopped at trusted and familiar sites.
How it's scarier to shop online
Web-based retailers have come a long way in providing a safe environment for shopping, so how is it that the majority of consumers remain wary?
"Credit card fraud and identity theft are so common in today's society that it would be unusual to find a family in the U.S. today that has not been affected," explained Alisdair Faulkner, chief products officer at ThreatMetrix. "Unfortunately, because it is a hidden crime, it's not transparent where the leaks in the system are occurring.
"People are worried about fraud in online transactions, primarily because they don’t have visibility or transparency into how safely their information is being stored or potentially used downstream," Faulkner added.
Shopping online takes a remarkable amount of trust, not only in a retailer to keep your personal information safe, but also that the retailer will deliver the goods as promised.
"Consumers don't get to touch, feel and see the product, and [fear] that they will be sold a lemon or an inferior product, [or] see one thing [and] be sold another," said Alexis A. Moore, a cybercrime expert and consultant based in northern California.
That concern is justified, Moore added.
"Most, if not all, consumers concerns are on point," Moore said. "They are fearful because they have heard of fraud via the media channels, friends, family members or even co-workers, and don't want that to happen to them.
"Fraud is a real issue," Moore added. "There are predators out there that do steal identities [or] advertise and sell products online that are not what they describe, and there are those [consumers] that have suffered instances where they provide a merchant monies and don't receive the merchandise."
Fraud cuts both ways
It isn't just the consumer who has to worry about fraud. Retailers worry about it, too, explained Sorin Mustaca, a security expert with Avira.
"In an online transaction, [there] are two parties involved: the buyer and the shop," Mustaca said. "Fraud can occur on both parties."
For example, the British online gift-item retailer Prezzybox has been the victim of fraud numerous times.
"Typically, a fraudulent order would be received through the website and it would be spotted by our Customer Service team who are trained to spot the signs of such orders," explained Prezzybox customer service manager Sharon Hall. "Any orders that we do spot, we always try to contact the cardholder if possible and let them know we think that their card has been used suspiciously.”
"Generally, people should not be concerned and can safely shop on the Internet," said Hall. "Reputable sites such as Prezzybox have safe checkouts and as such can be trusted by shoppers."
Safe shopping while surfing
It's good to have a heightened awareness of online security while shopping, but it's also important to remember that how you access the Internet is vital.
The ThreatMetrix study found that more than half (51 percent) of respondents believed the fraud risk was the same on a smartphone, a tablet, a desktop and a laptop. But that may not be true.
"In comparison to the shared home computer that continually runs slowly due to the latest virus infection, mobile devices seem like a private oasis of convenience," Faulkner said. "Unfortunately, this is also playing into the hands of more innovative fraudsters that seek to exploit this trust using app stores to distribute games and software laden with spyware and viruses that can take control of the mobile device and leak personal information.
"Very few consumers install anti-virus [software] on their mobile devices," Faulkner added.
Moore advises consumers take the time to research retail sites before shopping, and to pay heed to comments from other consumers.
"To be cybersecure today means taking the time to do some homework in advance of the final exam which is making the online purchases," she said.
Other tips for avoiding online fraud include:
— When shopping online, always log into a secure site (designated by "https" or a green lock icon in the address field), and make sure to check again before entering personal information.
— Check bank and credit card statements regularly and thoroughly. Report any strange issues to the bank or card issuer immediately.
— Do not use shared computers to shop online.
— Try always to pay with a credit card or with Paypal, and consider getting a dedicated credit card for online transactions only.
— Always have up-to-date anti-virus software installed on the PC used for online transactions.
— If you use online wallets such as those offered by Amazon, PayPal or others, make sure you use a unique and strong password. Don't let someone who hacks your Facebook account also get access to your crown jewels.