How to keep yourself safe from online scams

Does your average spending spree take place on your computer? Learn how to protect yourself from online scams while shopping.

Are you doing more online shopping than ever before? If so, you're not alone: a recent study found that 87% of Canadians made an online purchase last year. According to a separate report, 78% of Canadians are shopping online more now than they did three years ago.

Online shopping has obvious perks, but taking your shopping cart digital isn't always a safe bet. As Canadians have become more comfortable shopping on the internet, scammers and cybercriminals have become more sophisticated. Knowing strategies for staying safe while you scroll through the sale section can help you protect yourself from online scams.

How to recognize online scams and dangers

When you can quickly identify the features of the most common online shopping risks, you make it harder for them to trick you.

One of the first red flags to keep an eye out for is an unfamiliar website offering rock-bottom deals. Those amazing discounts are meant to lure unwary shoppers into providing financial information that can then be exploited by cybercriminals.

At first glance, these fake e-commerce sites might just seem like low-quality shopping sites. They could have broken links, grammatical errors, and other mistakes that give them an unprofessional look. They may also lack the all-important "back" button that lets you return to the previous page.

Another key signal of an online shopping scam site is hard-to-locate contact information. Consider it a warning if you're having a hard time finding shipping, returns, or privacy policies.

7 tips to keep you safe from online scams

Practicing safe online behaviour doesn't take impressive hacker skills — all it really translates to is some old-fashioned common sense. Here's what to keep in mind.

1. Don't forget cyber-security basics

If you're shopping on an unfamiliar site that asks you to set up an account, avoid choosing a password you've already used somewhere else. Scammers may use the account information they gather to try to access personal financial information on other sites, like your bank's.

Also, be mindful when sharing personal information on social media. Cybercriminals comb social media accounts for intel like your birthdate, birthplace, high school, or names of family members in order to hack financial accounts.

2. Avoid deals that are "too good to be true"

It's always a good idea to shop around. Comparing prices not only often gets you the best deal, but it also gives you a sense of what things are worth, after which spotting fake "deals" becomes much easier. If you see an incredible sale price, look for signs that the site could be an online shopping scam.

3. Check for encryption before entering your credit card

Before entering your credit card number on a new shopping site, always look for "https" in the address bar. That "s" indicates that the site is encrypted via a secure SSL certificate. If it's missing, then either cancel the purchase or look for an option to use a different payment method, such Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, or PayPal.

4. Get purchase protection for fraudulent activity

One of the upsides of shopping online with a credit card is the opportunity to add purchase protection. Programs like Visa Zero Liability (which both of our credit cards include!) help protect you from being held responsible for unauthorized financial transactions, including while you're online.

5. Never respond to email or pop-up requests for financial info

Be wary of emails and pop-ups that request your personal or financial information. Think it over in context: a pop-up on a baking site might ask for your email so it can add you to a recipe newsletter, but why would an online shop need your credit card number before you buy anything? Reputable retailers and financial institutions don't ask for information using these channels. Exit the screen immediately, and don't click on any links within the email or pop-up box.

6. Ensure your firewall is active

Your firewall protects your computer from malicious people and programs. Open Windows Firewall by clicking Start and Control Panel and then simply typing "Firewall" in the search window. On a Mac, go to System Preferences and then click on Security or Security/Privacy and Firewall.

7. Don't use autofill

Yes, autofill is convenient, and automatically populating a form with your name, address, credit card, password, and contact information definitely saves you a few seconds, not to mention considerable brainpower. However, doing so could leave you vulnerable to online scammers.

Balance the risks and the rewards

Shopping online can save time and even money, especially during back-to-school or holiday shopping season. The key is to go about it safely. Keep an eye out for suspicious sites so that when you click "confirm purchase," the only thing you need to protect yourself from is killer shipping costs.