WATCH OUT: The combination of COVID-19 and Black Friday creates the ultimate game for criminals who are skilled at robbing online customers blind, New Jersey's top law enforcer warned.
The opportunities for cashing in at your expense this week is "like the Super Bowl for cyber criminals," New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said. "They are good at the game and have had time to practice and rehearse each play.”
Grewal and the Division of Consumer Affairs warned consumers to watch out for new online scams and a slew of cyber-attacks as the holiday shopping season kicks off on what some have called "Hack Friday."
More than 60% of consumers plan to complete the majority of their holiday purchases online this season, the highest in the 17-year history of the National Retail Federation's annual survey.
The surge presents a golden opportunity for cyberthieves to "convince distracted bargain hunters to share their personal information or provide access to their electronic devices," Grewal said'
Shopping scams typically come via email, text message or phone call announcing a "special offer" or important message about the consumer's account, the attorney general said.
Before you know it, you've provided personal information or clicked on a link that can be used to separate you from your money.If you can't recognize false advertising or an unsecured site, you should be extremely careful with anything you do online.
And if a product is offered at an unusually low price that seems too good to be true, "it probably is," Grewal also warned.
"Taking precautions, learning how to recognize threat, and monitoring accounts are steps shoppers can take to protect themselves this holiday shopping season," said Paul Rodríguez, acting director of the state Division of Consumer Affairs.
That includes using your credit card, rather than a debit card, to pay for purchases. This way, if any sketchy charges turn up later, you can contest them through your credit card company. Debit cards don't offer the same protection.(Also: If you used a credit card, many retailers will also process a return or refund even if you lost or misplaced the receipt.)
And never, ever make online purchases with a prepaid debit card or by wiring money. Only thieves would ask you to.
If you don't already know it, never use public Wi-Fi to do your shopping. Open networks make it easier for hackers to steal your information. Consider using a virtual private network to be safe. And make sure that your home’s Wi-Fi network is secured with a password.
Grewal and Rodriguez offered these other tips for shopping, both online and in-store:
Reputation and reviews: Do your homework and research brands or merchandise by typing the name and the words “scam,” “complaint” or “reviews” into a search engine. Take into consideration a company’s reputation and what others are saying about the quality of the product or service. Be suspect of any company with only positive reviews, as they could have been paid for or manipulated.
Pricing: Make sure you know the price of the item before getting in line for the register or putting the item in your online cart. New Jersey law requires merchants to clearly mark the price of items either on the items themselves or the display where the items are located.
Refund policies: Can you return an item for a full refund? Some stores have fairly strict rules about returns. Keep all your receipts and store tags on purchased items. For online purchases, save all your email correspondence with the seller. If the item is purchased online, see if you have to pay for return shipping and handling. There can be other conditions placed on returns and refunds as well, ask about policies before you buy and before you seek to return an item.
Use familiar websites: If you know the site, go there by typing the address directly rather than clicking on a link that was sent to you. Make sure websites are not fraudulent by checking that they use the correct spelling of a business name, have operational customer service numbers, and have a real street address rather than a post office box.
Shopping apps: Be aware that some shopping apps collect a lot of personal information. Make sure that you understand how your data will be used. Only use apps that clearly tell you what they do with your data and how they keep it secure.
Look for the lock: Avoid buying anything online using your credit card from a site that doesn't have SSL (secure sockets layer) encryption installed. You'll know if the site has SSL because the URL for the site will start with HTTPS—instead of just HTTP. An icon of a locked padlock will appear, typically to the left of the URL in the address bar or the status bar down below.
Phishing scams: Watch out for unsolicited emails, texts, or calls offering a free item or letting you know there’s a problem with a delivery. Clicking on a link to verify or provide information could expose you to identity theft or allow malware onto your electronic device. When in doubt, consumers should always check the email sender details and hover over links to ensure they lead to trusted websites before clicking. Also, use up-to-date antivirus software, which will help you avoid non-secure websites and pop-up phishing scams.
Gift cards: Only buy cards from reputable sellers to ensure the card is valid and was not previously used. Under state law, gift cards and gift certificates must retain their full value for 24 months after purchase. After that period, merchants are allowed to charge a dormancy fee of up to $2 a month, as long as that fee is disclosed on the card or certificate or sales receipt or package for the card or certificate. While a gift card or certificate may list an expiration date, the underlying funds never expire. The merchant must include a telephone number for consumer inquiries into the expiration date and dormancy fees on the card.
“We urge New Jerseyans to stay informed and protect themselves from these attempts to score this holiday season," Grewal said.
For more holiday shopping tips and information on avoiding scams, as well as other consumer resources go to: NJ Division of Consumers Affairs.
Click here to sign up for Daily Voice's free daily emails and news alerts.