Now that E-tail > Black Friday, here’s five tips to staying safe you might not have seen elsewhere

National Retail Federation (Click for NPF's online safety tips).
National Retail Federation (Click for NPF’s online safety tips).

While you were busy digesting turkey and playing with your smartphone, a remarkable thing happened to American culture.  More people shopped online than in stores on Black Friday this year, according to Adobe Systems, a remarkable digital milestone.  And, as you might imagine, a disaster for old-fashioned stores.

It’s time to roll the credits on the era of big shopping malls.

My first job was in a big mall in Paramus, N.J., and I suspect many of you reading have a similar story. When I wasn’t working, I was trying to chat up girls from my high school as they shopped.  Or I roamed the alleys between stores with friends just checking out the world around me, killing time until the $5 I had left over from bus fare could be put to good use buying a sundae at Friendly’s, no matter how cold the sidewalk was. Shopping malls were my Main Street. Eventually they became climate-controlled, hermetically-sealed cities-within-cities, complete with their own casino-like control of sunlight.  Now, the sun is setting on malls.

Sure, there are billions more dollars to wrest out of consumers before the final Big Box store becomes a Big Empty Box.  Folks still spent more dollars in stores than online this weekend.  But we all know which ways those lines are headed.  Heck, half of online shoppers used their smartphones this year, Adobe said.  People don’t even need to get up from their couch and amble over to their desk to do holiday shopping. The ultimate impulse buy, consumers can whip out their phones and buy something during a 30-second commercial.

I don’t believe this is a good or a bad thing, btw.  Having seen the ill-timed monstrosity that is New Jersey’s Xanadu shopping mall / ghost town, I would never stand on the side of these Meccas to consumerism.  I do think I learned more hanging out at the mall than teenagers today learn hanging out online, but that’s up for debate.  There’s certainly as much trouble to be found in a mall parking lot as in a Snapchat message.

But I’m sure we should all pause for a moment to mark the moment.

Soap box pushed aside, I’ve been asked by plenty of folks to offer advice on staying safe while shopping online. Since more than 100 million Americans are shopping online now, I might have a few suggestions to offer that you haven’t seen in other places.

1. Update your software first

If you’re human, you probably postpone critical software updates and security patches because they seem to arrive at inconvenient times. Now’s a good time to pause and make sure those antivirus definitions are up to date.  You’re about to sling your credit card all over tarnation; put on a decent life jacket before you head out on the lake.

2. Two-factor authentication

Plenty of places that you shop frequently will ask you to register so you can check out more quickly. That’s fine, but of course it means a criminal can also check out more quickly with your credentials.  Two-factor authentication is a great tool to stop this. Most banks now offer it and some retailers are finally offering their own version.  Amazon.com just added it, for example (Wired explains how to use it here.)  Basically, it means you won’t be able to buy something at Amazon without taking a tiny extra confirmation step, usually via a cellphone text message or app.  It’s worth the small hassle.

Yes, someone thought this was a good idea. (Xanadu, used under Creative Commons license, click for more details)
Yes, someone thought this was a good idea. (Xanadu, used under Creative Commons license, click for more details)

3.  Use only one credit card

This is the one time of year than many people blow through the traditional “only shop at name-brand websites” advice.  Heck, if you want to make a bobblehead of your boyfriend, you want to make a bobblehead of your boyfriend. OK, the next best thing is to use only one of your various credit cards while online shopping. That will make it easier to spot fraud if (when!) if happens. And don’t forget: fighting fraud is more about limiting the damage than prevention.

4. Research.  And coupons.

When you do use those smaller websites, always do a little research. It’s so easy.  Google “BobbleHeadsAreUS.RU” and “complaint.”  It’s amazing what you’ll find.  And while you’re at it, Google “BobbleHeadsAreUs.RU” and “coupon.”  I never buy anything without performing those two searches.

5. Enable text alerts.

Back to your credit card settings. I am a big fan of allowing your bank to text you every time there’s a transaction on your credit card. It’s a fantastic way to make sure everything’s legit.  Meanwhile, it’s also a great way to remind yourself how much you are overspending.  Getting too many text alerts? The solution ISN’T turning off the texts….


About Bob Sullivan 1249 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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