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How to stay safe online during Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales

Black Friday always falls on the fourth Friday in November, which is the day after the American Thanksgiving holiday. But Black Friday, as we know it, is officially dead as many big stores such as Best Buy, Walmart and Target have already announced they will be closing over the holiday.

Preparations will already be underway as stores desperately try to recuperate losses caused by the global pandemic. For example, with no online business to fall back on, Primark's monthly sales took a nosedive from £650m to zero during lockdown without the ability to see products online. Many stores face severe challenges as they try to replicate excitement without crowds while beefing up their online presence.

The Black Friday weekend sales are now responsible for record-breaking e-commerce sales growth in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Russia. For most people reading this, it means their inboxes will soon be bombarded with Black Friday and Cyber Monday promotions for the next month.

A global recession has dampened customer spending, meaning that brands will be preparing to get creative and leverage technology to personalize recommendations to tempt shoppers to keep buying. Tech behemoth Amazon has also moved its Prime Day sale from July to October. But how can you best prepare and stay safe during this year's online Black Friday sales?

Secure your devices 

Your devices will come with operating systems such as Windows, macOS, Android, or iOS operating systems with regular security updates. If you are the kind of person who hits the ‘Remind me later’ option every morning, you need to take the hit and update now. When shopping on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop, it's crucial that all these devices are running the latest security patches.

Although technology enables us to work from anywhere as long as we can locate a wifi connection, public wifi should be avoided when shopping online.

A private wifi connection or your smartphone's cellular network will offer a much safer shopping experience. But if you have no choice but to grab a bargain while on a public wifi network, a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, will encrypt your browsing history and help you stay safe during the holiday season.

Setup credit card alerts

An increasing number of banks and credit card companies offer free alerts on your accounts. Each time your card is used, you can receive immediate notifications on your smartphone, making it much easier to block rogue transactions if your account gets compromised. Spending notifications that provide real-time financial control could be the secret weapon against cybercriminals throughout the holiday season and beyond.

Unique passwords and two-factor authentication

Passwords remain one of the biggest causes of account breaches. If you use the same password across every website or online store, it only takes one of those sites to get hacked for a hacker to gain access to your other accounts. For example, a quick visit to haveibeenpwned will reveal how many websites that are associated with your email account have been compromised.

Immediately resetting the passwords on your compromised accounts with unique passwords for every website is your best protection from future attacks.

Stores like Amazon and many social media websites also offer additional security layers through multi-factor authentication (MFA) and two-factor authentication (2FA). Even if someone attempts to access your account with your password, they would still require access to your smartphone or email.

Email, be careful what you click on

Black Friday deals are big business for cybercriminals who will leverage emails, text messaging, and social media posts to trick shoppers into entering their credit card details. Spam messages will predictably increase over the next few months with promises of sales that appear too good to be true.

Always exercise extreme caution and trust your gut before clicking on links to such deals.

According to Check Point, before last year's Black Friday event, 1,700 lookalike domains to websites looked similar to Amazon.com. Emails containing links to these bogus websites are designed to capture personal information or, worse, trick you into completing a transaction. Contrary to popular opinion, email is not dead, and it remains one of the most effective promotional channels. Unfortunately, this also means that fraudsters will be vying for your attention, too.

Research before you purchase

If someone was selling Ray-Ban sunglasses for 90% off the retail value on a street corner, would you expect them to be genuine? Probably not, but when shopping online, it's easy to lose your streetwise instincts when confronted with an authentic-looking website that turns out to be a scam. If the best deals appear on your social media newsfeed and take you to a website you have never heard of, it should set off your Spidey senses that something isn't right.

Remember that websites with an HTTP address are not encrypted, and attackers could steal your data if the online store is not secured with an HTTPS URL. Before hitting the checkout button, do a little research on the store and look for ratings and reviews away from the website. For example, you can check what people say about the company on Twitter or sites such as Trustpilot. If you struggle to find anything, it will probably be safer to close down the tab immediately.

Just because you are shopping online, don't forget to trust your gut when coming across the seemingly unbeatable deal.

With a new Xbox and PlayStation due for release, we can expect a few people to fall for the photo or empty box scams that often appear when a new console goes on sale.

Sadly, many of your precautions will not help you if a brand's security policies fail to match your efforts. Rather than allowing 10+ brands to store your credit card details on its servers, remember that services such as PayPal can prevent you from oversharing your card information with multiple vendors.

Black Friday online sales are an easy and convenient way to get your hands-on items that are unaffordable for the rest of the year. But the excitement and urgency to secure the best deals creates vulnerabilities that anonymous hackers are ready and willing to exploit. As you prepare your inbox for the annual bombardment of Black Friday offers, maybe take a few moments to bolster your security before the madness begins.

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