RealTime IT News

'Tis Also the Season for Online Security Warnings

A record weekend for online retailers has raised expectations for the holiday shopping season.

But as an estimated five out of six Americans prepare to buy at least one gift online between now and Christmas, security experts have a warning for consumers rushing to save time on the Internet: 'Tis the season to be extra careful shopping online.

"Companies have gone to great lengths to protect their consumers," said Adam Sarner, an analyst with research firm Gartner. "But they can only do so much."

Sarner said online shoppers are often their own worst enemies, and he compared the less initiated to unwitting victims of con artists operating at the crossroads of Times Square.

"The most important thing is to educate and protect you," he said.

Such education begins with the awareness of shell games like the ubiquitous phishing scam.

Phishing remains one of the most popular ways to bilk Web surfers out of vital information, according to Sarner. And the increasing use of e-mails and pop-up messages that claim to originate from well-known businesses continues to flummox the casual Internet user.

The scam usually involves an e-mail from an organization the recipient might possibly deal with, such as an ISP, bank, online payment service or a government agency. It urges consumers to provide information in ways that make it difficult to ignore, said Sarner.

And once the initial hook is set, usually by requesting information to clear up a fictitious problem, it often leads to consumers releasing important information.

Gartner recently surveyed consumers and found that nearly 60 million Americans have received Phishing e-mails and nearly 2 million have become victims by giving away personal data or information over the past 12 months

With retail fraud forecast to hit $2.6 billion this year and a third of that expected to occur during the holiday shopping season, Sarner said scams won't likely change, but the number of targets will.

"There is just more opportunity to find someone during the holiday," he said.

The best thing is to use common sense, Sarner said. Look for their party verification, Better Business Bureau reviews and phone numbers.

GeoTrust, a leader in identity and security solutions, issued a warning about the rise in e-mails, pop-ups and Web sites that request personal or financial data. The company believes phishing e-mails will nearly double between now and Christmas.

"It is worse than last year," said Joan Lockhart, vice president of marketing for Needham Mass.-based GeoTrust. "With many more first-time online shoppers during the holidays, the chances of it happening increase."

Most costumers don't realize that legitimate e-commerce sites will never ask for credit card numbers or personal or financial data through the mail, said Lockhart.

To combat phishing scams, GeoTrust launched TrustWatch, a free toolbar developed to help customers recognize and verify security standards of Web sites that are conducting e-business or requesting confidential information.

Nearly 84 percent of Americans say they will buy at least one holiday gift online, according to a recent survey conducted by AC Neilsen and commissioned by eBay. That is 10 percent more than in 2003. And those who plan to shop online are more likely to buy multiple gifts there; 37 percent say they will purchase at least 20 percent of their gifts online this year, according to the survey.

So with the increased activity, it is more than likely shoppers will stumble across someone trying to rip them off.

"It is ultimately a numbers game," said Lockhart.