It may be The-Season-To-Be-Jolly, but today's "Free Delivery Friday" unfortunately also means that "Tis The Season To Be E-Frauded", with record-breaking numbers of shoppers seemingly saving their carbon footprint by using a mouse instead of a car and with record numbers of scammers and cyber-crooks donning their white beards and cyber-Santa outfits in an effort to ruin our retail therapy this Credit Crunch Christmas.
So, if you don't want your festive cheer to go south quicker than Rick Perry's presidential ambitions -- or Herman Cain's trousers -- then here are a few useful tips from the posse at Web Sheriff as to the Do's and Don'ts of online shopping:
Never give personal info in response to unsolicited emails. This is the biggest No-No of them all... and, if you receive an email asking you to register or "re-register" your contact or credit card details, never (and we mean never) oblige or even respond. No matter how official and plausible looking the email may be, it will be bogus and is simply a trick to try and get you to disclose information that will lead to identity theft or online fraud -- a scam known as "phishing". If you need to provide your details to a bank or a store, then you contact them directly through their official website and, that way, you'll be sure that your information is secure.
Only order from websites that publish their addresses. This is also vitally important... never order from a web store that doesn't publish its postal address and the identity of the corporation or owner. These days, consumer protection laws make this a legal requirement and you should ideally have a contact telephone number as well. That way, if your goods don't arrive or if they are damaged or substandard, you know who you are dealing with and your consumer rights can be enforced.
Always check the email address that shopping offers come from. Crooks can lure you in with authentic looking emails so, no matter how plausible or official an email looks (it may even have well-known corporate logos embedded into it), remember to double-check the email address that it comes from. Sadly, you'll all-too-often find upon closer inspection that, though similar, the email address is subtly different from the one it should be. Again, be sure to never reply to these and report them as Spam for good measure.
Be sure to use well-known sites if you want to buy by auction. If you fancy yourself as a cyber-bidder, then play it safe and shop via established sites such as eBay or iOffer and, whichever auction site you choose, read the small print and make sure that they have a proper complaints procedure and full contact details. Similarly, if you want to buy via an online marketplace, then sites such as Amazon and Craig's List publish their complaints procedures, so you'll have some degree of comeback against the many, semi-anonymous sellers offering goods there.
Be smart about payment methods. Paypal tends to be a much safer way of effecting payments without having to give out your debit card or credit card details to complete strangers and, even if you're dealing with an established retailer, paying by credit card actually affords you with greater protection than paying by charge card or debit card, as the credit card companies are legally obliged to reimburse you if you buy a lemon or are a victim of fraud. Do remember, however, that it will generally end up costing you more to pay by credit card.
Don't publish your vacation plans online. On a more general level, social networking sites may be great for spreading holiday cheer, but they've also proven to be a gold mine of personal information that crooks piece together for identity theft and house break-ins. So, if you do insist upon posting Facebook messages or Tweets about your vacation plans, then expect more than just Santa coming down your chimney this Christmas!
Do use email scanning software. Remember to include mail scanning software on your cyber-wish-list this year to protect you and your computer from spam, junk mail, viruses and crooks phishing for your data.
Happy Holidays -- and remember these tips for a safe Christmas!
So, there-you-have-it, a few prudent, common-sense measures to help you be vigilant about your personal data while shopping online... although, come to think of it, if you add up the carbon footprint of the ten ton truck that delivers your Xmas shopping, plus the pizza delivery and the liquor store drop-off, then maybe we're not being so carbon-friendly after all... but what the heck, it's cold outside and the Presidential Candidates' Debate is on TV -- and who could ask for better holiday entertainment than that?!
Follow John Giacobbi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/websheriff