Online shoppers have lost millions to fraud in 2020: Here's how to make sure you're not one of them

Kristine Solomon
·7 min read

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Make online shopping a safe experience for the whole family. (Photo: Getty Images)
Make online shopping a safe experience for the whole family. (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s another lazy Sunday, and you’re shopping online from a safe social distance—filling your Amazon cart with household items, groceries, and maybe a few gadgets. This year you’ve gotten into the habit of stocking up virtually and limiting your in-person shopping trips to whenever necessary.

Online shopping is the new normal, but it’s not necessarily safe—unless, of course, you already have cyber security software like Malwarebytes installed on your PC.

But if your computer is unprotected, you’re exposing yourself to fraud each and every time you make an online transaction, according to Experian. And during a worldwide pandemic or even the holiday season, you’re especially vulnerable to hackers, phishers, and identity thieves.

Since the beginning of the year, Americans have made 91,808 COVID-19-related reports to the Federal Trade Commission—34,000 of which were related to online shopping alone. Covid-related fraud has already robbed a cumulative $16 million from unsuspecting Americans, says the FTC’s most up-to-date report.

That’s because so many people are shopping online at once and distracted from their normal routines, says cyber security expert and CyberScout founder Adam Levin. “People are trying to juggle working from home, homeschooling, applying for unemployment” in addition to all that late-night shopping, he tells Yahoo Life. “You have enormous vulnerability. Scammers now know that they can use all of these different avenues.”

But here’s the thing: you can and should shop safely online without fear of getting your identity or any of your sensitive information stolen. It’s actually pretty easy to protect yourself, says Levin. It’s all about investing in the right cyber security tools. Here are six essential tools for anyone who shops online.

1. Anti-Malware Software

Malwarebytes Premium Multi-Device (Photo: Malwarebytes)
Malwarebytes Premium Multi-Device (Photo: Malwarebytes)

As its name implies, malware is malicious software that is designed to infect your computer and steal your most sensitive information. Malware is a fast track to identity theft, and something as simple as online shopping can easily invite malware into your system.

Levin references an all-too-common phenomenon called “e-skimming,” in which cyber criminals plant malicious code on major e-commerce sites as a kind of booby trap for online shoppers. As you complete your purchase at checkout, the malicious code quietly steals your credit card information and personally identifiable information, like social security numbers and birthdays, according to the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Careers and Studies.

“The only way you find out [that you’ve been a victim of e-skimming] is if you have transaction alerts for your credit cards and your bank accounts,” says Levin. And even then, there may not be anything you can do to fix it.

But you can prevent e-skimming with powerful anti-malware software like MalwareBytes Premium Multi-Device. This program runs 24/7, scanning your system for anything suspicious and stonewalling any potential malware invasions in real time. It also removes anything malicious that might already exist on up to three Windows or Mac computers—plus, it speeds up a slow PC.

The best part? You can try MalwareBytes for free for 30 days. After that, it’s just $4.99 a month.

Shop it: Malwarebytes Premium Multi-Device, free for 30 days then $4.99 a month, subscriptions.yahoo.com

2. A Password Manager

LastPass Password Manager (Photo: LastPass)
LastPass Password Manager (Photo: LastPass)

Logging into each account for each of your favorite online stores requires one key talent: remembering your password. Sorry to bust your bubble, but Levin says it’s a bad idea and a big risk to use the same or similar passwords everywhere. He recommends creating “long and strong passwords,” a.k.a. complex passwords you’ll never possibly remember. Wait...what? Well, that’s where a password manager comes into play.

“Certainly [a password manager] makes people feel more comfortable either by creating their own complex passwords that they inventory within the password manager” or having the password manager generate a long string of characters on its own, he says. LastPass does just that, and keeps all of these airtight passwords stored safely and synced across all your devices. Save each password once and you’ll be instantly logged in to any site you subscribe to going forward.

Shop it: LastPass Premium, free for 30 days then $1.99 per month, subscriptions.yahoo.com

3. Strong Security Software

Norton Security Online (Photo: Norton)
Norton Security Online (Photo: Norton)

Strong security software is a must for preventing viruses, ransomware and malware attacks while you’re jumping from one online store to another, snapping up sales. You might not even know you’re on a malicious website, but they can secretly steal your personal information or even overtake your entire device, according to software leader Norton.

The company has a solution for that. Its Norton Security Online (affiliated with Yahoo Life’s parent company, Verizon Media) software can make all of that a non-issue. It safeguards your web surfing across five devices—PC, Mac, Android, and iPhones included—on a single subscription, so the whole family can shop confidently.

Shop it: Norton Security Online, free for 30 days then $4.99 per month, subscriptions.yahoo.com

4. A VPN

ExpressVPN (Photo: ExpressVPN)
ExpressVPN (Photo: ExpressVPN)

“Never use free public WiFi,” warns Levin. But even if you are shopping on your own private WiFi network during lockdown, your information can be vulnerable. Every site you visit is reading your device’s IP address, so fraud and theft are always lingering threats.

With a VPN, you can rest assured your IP address and even your location are private, and your identity is totally anonymous. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and one of the most popular is Express VPN. Install and run this browser plug-in and your network will be automatically encrypted—and end-to-end encryption is something Levin strongly recommends.

An ExpressVPN subscription starts at $8.32 per month if you commit to a full year right now during the brand’s 35 percent off sale.

Shop it: ExpressVPN, starting at $8.32 a month for one year, expressvpn.com

5. A Pop Up Ad Blocker

AdBlock (Photo: AdBlock)
AdBlock (Photo: AdBlock)

You know all those pop-up ads you deal with just by trying to enter your credit card information to make one simple purchase? They’re not only annoying—they might also be dangerous. In the best-case scenario, pop-up ads are trying to get you to sign up for special offers. In the worst-case scenario, they’re implanting cookies in your device and maybe even viruses, adware, spyware, and more malicious scripts.

“You don't want malware that turns your computer into a transmitter,” says Levin about a specific kind of threat that logs each of your keystrokes. Most reputable sites won’t present such a risk, but you never know when you’ll click on the wrong link and end up somewhere you shouldn’t be.

AdLock makes all of those annoying and dangerous ads a thing of the past, so you can shop uninterrupted and unharmed. You save 53 percent by subscribing to one year for just $1.64 a month.

Shop it: AdLock, starting at $1.64 a month for a year, adlock.com

6. A Mobile Security App

Avast Mobile Security (Photo: Avast)
Avast Mobile Security (Photo: Avast)

You’re lounging on your couch, scrolling through Instagram or Facebook on your smartphone, and an appealing ad pops up. A new swimsuit that flatters bodies of all shapes and sizes? Why, of course you need that. So you click over and start entering your credit card information, naturally.

But are you sure the site clicked on is not a phishing site? According to PC World, it very well could be, and it’s easy for consumers to fall into that trap. But a mobile security app can keep your handheld device safe from malicious hackers.

Avast Mobile Security is a leading app that lets you surf securely via VPN connection and guards your passwords on both iPhones and Android phones. It will also verify WiFi security when you’re shopping somewhere that’s not your living room. The best part, this app is free, too.

Shop it: Avast Mobile Security App, free, avast.com

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