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How to Safely Shop Online This Holiday Season

New lingo, new analytics, and another surge in online holiday sales is expected this November and December. How can you benefit and stay safe in cyberspace as you shop? Let’s explore.

The moment Halloween ended, the nation entered an earlier-than-ever holiday shopping season online that has already begun and won’t end until early January, 2020.

Why begin the holiday shopping season so early this year?

Since the Thanksgiving holiday weekend arrives late in 2019, Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals are already arriving with retailers launching a blur of discounts to try and make up for the perceived lost shopping days - when compared to the early Thanksgiving holiday weekend in 2018.

For example, CNET highlighted these Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals that actually start on November 7. Others have already begun.

USA Today revealed deals from Bed Bath & Beyond as well as Kohls deals.

Forbes provided these deals from Walmart, Best Buy and more. While Fox News proclaimed: “Black Friday is 3 weeks away right? Nope, it's here now.”

As I was doing research for this article, I learned that Black Friday has become a global event, with big sales as far away as China. Indeed, the Google analytics show worldwide holiday shopping trends that are complex, unique by industry and country. Overall, big increases are expected in search traffic – with some industries doubling. In the US, retailers see an 80 percent increase in their search traffic throughout November.

And the sales forecast news is generally very good for retailers according to Inc. Magazine:

“Cyber Monday is expected to pull in $9.4 billion this year, a $1.5 billion increase from last year's online sales tally for the Monday after Thanksgiving. The real detail retailers need to know? Thirty percent of all sales made this Cyber Monday, which falls on December 2, will likely be made in the four-hour window of 7 to 11 p.m. Pacific time.

That's according to Adobe Analytics' Holiday Forecast 2019, which analyzed data on trillions of visits, products, and transaction data from U.S. retail websites. Adobe also surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. consumers in October as a companion to its findings.

The report notes that retailer conversion rates, which measure the number of people who visit a website and then make a purchase, are predicted to double during the four-hour surge in sales. Adobe says these ‘golden hours of retail’ are due to ‘deal FOMO,’ or the fear of missing out on last-minute deals near the end of the day.”

Beyond Black Friday and Cyber Monday: A Wider Holiday Sales Trend?

And taking a big step back there are several significant trends developing as we head into the 2020s. While Black Friday sales within stores remain a robust and huge part of holiday shopping, a new cybermania is emerging which extends well beyond Cyber Monday. (We may even need a new name – any ideas?)

CNBC recently reported that Cyber Monday will excite shoppers more than Black Friday. Here are some highlights:

  • Deloitte finds 53 percent of people will rely on Cyber Monday for discounts, while 44 percent say they’re planning to snag promotions on Black Friday this year.
  • Deloitte’s annual holiday study also finds shoppers are expected to spend $1,496 per household this holiday season.
  • The bulk of spending, or $596, is going toward experiences like travel and dining out.
Business Insider offers this very helpful piece which answers the frequent question: Is Black Friday or Cyber Monday Better (for sales)? Here’s an excerpt:

“A good rule of thumb is that Black Friday is a better time to buy newer, big-ticket items. It's also the best day to shop in stores. Cyber Monday is a better day to shop for tech deals and smaller gifts. You'll also see slightly better discounts online.

For items you're likely to buy once a year or less, you'll probably find better discounts on Black Friday. Anything you'd buy as a gift will likely see better discounts on Cyber Monday.”  

Online Safety and Security First

But regardless of when you go online to do your Christmas shopping this holiday season, there remain some tips that can help you stay safe and secure - beyond the frequent calls to change your profile password (or not use the same password) at websites.

To begin, a bit of history. This topic is certainly not new, and many of the themes and basic questions are the same as a decade ago. You don’t want to get disciplined at work for violating policy, so be sure to know what’s allowed and what isn’t allowed.

I find it interesting to look back to where we have been, and compare behaviors to office life today with articles and blogs from a decade ago on Cyber Monday.  

Here are a few relevant examples from the past:

CSO Magazine: Encourage Cyber Monday or Grinch.exe? and Cyber Monday & Redefining Acceptable Use – Again

Government Technology Magazine: Web Sites Struggle on Black Friday: Cyber Monday is Next and Cyber Monday: Are you shopping from work?

Nevertheless, most organizations have loosened their holiday shopping policies and now permit employees (even government employees) to shop at appropriate times over the holiday season on work computers (usually during breaks).

So here are some of my favorite tips to help whether at home or work:

1.  Avoid Sites With Poor Security Practices –

“Don’t gamble with your identity. Stay away from retail sites with lackadaisical security practices. Two key practices stand out in particular: SSL certificates and Verisign domain protection.

SSL is an encryption protocol that renders it much more difficult (though not impossible) for bad actors to steal payment card information and other personal data during the payment process. Look for “https” at the beginning of the site’s URL. You should never enter payment card information on non-“https” pages, period.

Verisign provides site administrators with a modicum of protection against hacking attacks and malware. Like SSL, it’s not foolproof, but it helps. Sites without Verisign protection are vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks, spoofing, and other types of cybercrime.

If you don’t already, consider using a web browser that can identify potentially compromised websites. …”

2. – Offers ten basic safety tips for online and offline life. Here’s one that important:

“Use a credit card for your online purchases versus other payment methods. Almost all credit cards have fraud protection, meaning if there is a data breach and your card’s information is taken, you won’t be held responsible for any of the charges. If you are involved in a fraud situation, your credit card provider will handle this and send you a new credit card. The same courtesies may not be extended from other online payment methods like an electronic transfer from your bank account.”

3. State Farm – Offers tips for in the store, in your car and online. Here are their online tips:

  • Stick to retailers you know and preferably, have shopped with before.
  • Research a business you haven’t purchased from before by checking customer reviews or complaints with the Better Business Bureau.
  • Never commit to a deal that seems too good to be true.
  • Refrain from using public Wi-Fi to make purchases, or use a VPN to avoid hackers intercepting your information.
  • Check a webpage’s security by looking for the lock icon in the URL field, and making sure the URL starts with “https”, not just “http”. The “s” means the site is safer and more secure.
Final Thought

One thing to keep in mind is that many people have heard these tips before, but let their guard down over the holidays when rushing for an online deal that is about to expire. Also, people will go places they don’t normally go this time of year to save on presents or get the best deal.

So even if you think you know all of this, double-check to make sure that everyone in your family (and in your office) is following best practices.

Happy shopping.

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