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How To Shop Safely Online This Holiday Season

NOEL KING, HOST:

The three biggest holiday shopping days of the year are Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Americans spent $25 billion online this year - a record - and if you're crooked, an opportunity. Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary covers personal finance. She talked to Steve about what you can do to protect yourself from scammers.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You have given a list of things not to do, a list of don'ts. Let's run through them, and you can tell me why. You say, don't use your debit card. Why not?

MICHELLE SINGLETARY: Right. You should think of your debit card like flying coach - and not just coach, but the middle seat. It just doesn't give you a lot of protections. It doesn't give you the same protections as your credit card. And it's also tied directly to your bank account so that if someone compromises your debit card, they're going to be taking money that you might need to pay your rent or your mortgage, whereas with the credit card, you're not liable for fraudulent charges. And so you don't want to use your debit card online that is connected to your cash money in your bank account.

INSKEEP: OK. You also say, don't be fooled because you're looking for a bargain.

SINGLETARY: Lots of people are out of work, or their income has been reduced, and so they're naturally looking for discounts and rewards. And the scammers know this, so they're sending emails - oh, you've won, you know, a $50 gift card to Amazon for all your shopping. And if you've been shopping a lot on these platforms, you're like, oh, OK, that might make sense. But it doesn't. So that's how I help people protect themselves - just a blanket, I don't click anything. Even if I'm expecting a delivery, and I get a note, I go to the website to double-check and track from that platform.

INSKEEP: You also say, don't be so loyal. Loyalty sounds so nice, though. Why not be loyal to a merchant?

SINGLETARY: Well, anybody who has had an account with just about any major company these days knows that data breaches has been happening like a dime a dozen. And so your data is out there when you sign up for these loyalty programs. Now, if it's a retailer or maybe a grocery store that you frequent often, then sure; you know, you get your discount. But if you're just shopping for something, and a website says, oh, just join our loyalty program - no. Try to limit the amount of your personal information that is online.

INSKEEP: Now, in addition to the don'ts, you have some things to do, and one of them seems related to that. Check out as a guest rather than giving all of your information permanently to a merchant. Is that for the same reason?

SINGLETARY: It's for the same reason. The more information that you put on these sites, the more likely that your data is going to be out there. Hackers are going to hack them. Just check out as a guest. Don't store your credit card information. That increases the likelihood that it's going to be compromised. You just got to really protect yourself and take that extra step to look and check out sites before you use them.

INSKEEP: Do you have a sense of whether the problem of fraud has increased as online sales have increased during the pandemic?

SINGLETARY: You know, I've been talking to consumer advocates and experts at the Federal Trade Commission, and they have seen an uptick in scams. The scammers play off with the news, so they know lots of people are shopping online. So that's why you probably have seen an increase in the number of emails that you're getting about discounts and things like that. So there is more scamming out there. The scammers have become so sophisticated. You have to think like a criminal, almost, to save yourself from being scammed.

INSKEEP: Do you enjoy shopping online?

SINGLETARY: I don't enjoy shopping at all.

(LAUGHTER)

SINGLETARY: I look at it as a chore. And so I'm - I have a lot of anxiety at this time of year. But if you're going to shop, if gift-giving is your love language, just be careful 'cause the scammers are coming for you.

INSKEEP: Michelle Singletary, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

SINGLETARY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.