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5 Online Mistakes to Avoid During the Holidays

The holiday season has arrived and so have the opportunities for Internet deals, sending and receiving holiday cards and many more online activities. Nevertheless, with the good comes the bad – as phishing scams, one-time bargains that are too good to be true and other cyber traps can lead to major headaches. Here are five common online mistakes to avoid as we head towards another New Year’s Eve.

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Have you ever purchased from an online retailer who provided horrible customer service? You waited on hold to speak with someone for what seemed to be hours. Perhaps an after-Christmas return or product support experience was miserable.

How about clicking on a fun holiday card that turned-out to deliver malware to your PC?

Or maybe the “too good to be true” online price for a present was in fact too good to be true. You lost money or argued with an online merchant or your credit card company to get your money back.

Oftentimes, mistakes are truly self-inflicted, with holiday messages delivered via the Internet or in person causing confusion, family problems or even legal issues.

So what are some of the typical online potholes to avoid this holiday season? Here are five common mistakes people make and some tips to avoid trouble.

Five Holiday Cyber Traps to Watch Out For

1)      Watch Out For Online Shopping Fraud – We all want a deal. Some of us will go to great lengths both online and offline to save a buck. Sadly, cyberspace is full of scams and “too good to be true” deals that really are fakes in more ways than one. From fake products to fake prices with hidden fees and exorbitant shipping charges to entire websites that are cloned imitations of more reputable websites, there are many ways to be tricked online.

The holidays are an especially dangerous time, since many people shop in new online stores in a once-a-year ritual that kicks off with Black Friday every year. In the hustle and bustle of the season, many people do not do enough due diligence to realize who they are really dealing with in cyberspace.

Tip: Stick with online merchants (companies) that you trust. While it can be tempting to save an extra 10% at some new unknown retailer, be extra careful.  Household names like Target, Walmart, Best Buy and offer great deals over the holidays without the extra burden or worry that what will be opened on Christmas Day may not be what looked so pretty in the online picture.  

If you do buy from a new or unknown online merchant, do your homework. Make sure that you know the policies for returns, refunds and more. Remember that you are providing credit card and potentially other sensitive information to this company, so follow best practices to keep your sensitive information secure.

2)      Watch-out for Holiday Phishing Scams – Related, but different, than item #1, are emails and other offers sent to you that are in reality phishing scams. While it may appear that these offers are coming from reputable sources, make sure that the URL is in fact going to the right place. These bad links can bring malware or steal your logon credentials.

Tip:  There are many important steps you can take to guard against phishing scams. Here are a few tips in this Youtube video:

Also, it is important to look up web addresses and phone numbers yourself via a search engine, rather than clicking on email links.

Finally, remember that phishing scams can also come from phone calls, faxes received or even from text messages.

3)      Watch-out for Fake Holiday Cards – This is the season to send Christmas and New Year’s greeting cards and / or family letters. But given the time and expense of sending letters via the postal service, many have turned to electronic greeting cards, newsletters and more. Often times, these messages are funny, add music or even cartoons and animation to liven-up your holidays.

Tip: 123 Greeting offers this advice for determining if an ecard is fraudulent.

Norton offers this advice: When it comes to e-cards, be wary of these techniques:

- Appears to be familiar or a friend. A greeting might appear to come from someone you know, says John Bonora, owner and founder of Privacy Solution Partners, a privacy consultation and identity theft prevention firm based in New Haven, Conn. The bad guys sometimes go to social networking sites such as Facebook and get identifiable information about a person. They use this information in a greeting card so it appears legitimate.

- Uses common name. Fake e-cards may use more common names in the greeting, says Bonora. For example, a subject line might read, “You have an e-card from Mike!”

- Pretends to be a legitimate card company. Malicious types will send email appearing to come from popular card websites such as Hallmark, American Greetings and Blue Mountain.

- Creates fake e-card websites. Instead of targeting the e-card recipient, some criminals target the person who is sending one. They create fake websites to trap unwary victims, says Bonora. If you try to register at the site, you might be asked to reveal such personal information as a credit card number. Don’t do it!

- Asks you to install software. Most of us expect e-greetings to involve some cute animation. Characters dance to catchy tunes. Hearts float across a screen to a lilting melody.

4)      Think Twice Before Hitting Send Over The Holidays – If you are like me, you often seem to be in a hurry during the pre-Christmas rush to get things done. From putting up Christmas trees and decorations to sending out presents to relatives, the month of December can be stressful for many.

Unfortunately, this busy scenario is also a recipe for online mistakes at home and work. From rushing through text messages that auto-correct to say things we never intended to misdirecting packages with the wrong contact information to saying things in emails in unkind ways, there are many ways to get in trouble online.

Tip: First and foremost, slow down. It may seem obvious, but allowing enough time up front can save lots of time in the end.

Second, follow these email etiquette tips, such as “Make sure your e-mail includes a courteous greeting and closing. Helps to make your e-mail not seem demanding or terse.”

Finally, consider whether a message should be delivered online at all. The holiday season is a great time to pick up the phone, or chat with family members on the other side of the world using Skype or best or all meeting in person, if possible. Some messages are best delivered when looking at his / her smiling face.

5)      Not Turning-off Your Technology at Appropriate Times – This last tip may surprise you, but try staying offline for a day or at least half a day. The holiday season is a great time to test where your work / life balance is really at. With family and friends all around, do you really need to be sending work emails, surfing the web and/or hanging out on Facebook while grandmother is reading children’s books next to the fire or Christmas tree?

Tip: Ask yourself: Is it time to disconnect? Should we play a family game, go for a walk or just spend time talking together rather than surfing the net? Even new high-tech toys have their time and place, and many of us need to remind ourselves that the new (fill-in-the-blank) will be around in a day or two when the extended family heads back home.

In conclusion, I must say that I have failed in all of these areas during past holiday seasons. I certainly am not perfect, but I speak from experience that these areas do cause trouble for many individuals and families. We all need to be reminded of some of these basic online dos and don’ts and take care to reexamine our habits and actions in cyberspace. Taking some simple steps can help avoid online miscues over the holidays.

Make this a memorable holiday season - for the right reasons.  

Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.