On Watch

Tis the Season

Posted: Nov 22, 2012 1:35 PM ET Last Updated: Nov 22, 2012 1:35 PM ET
As November winds down, I've learned to stop cringing and groaning every time I go into a store and have my ears assaulted by Christmas music.

I thought it was a bit much to start pumping it out before the Halloween candy was all sold off.  But now it's OK.

Some of us even have a pretty good handle on our Christmas shopping.  Which got me thinking about safe shopping. 

Any day now, police in Nova Scotia will be putting out warnings about leaving valuables in your vehicles.  Despite the warnings, CBC News has done stories for the past few years during Christmas shopping season in which we find purses, presents and other valuable stuff in plain view, in vehicles in shopping mall parking lots all over the Halifax area.  And people wonder why when they return from their last store, they find their car window smashed and all their presents gone.

Of course, smash and grab isn't the only way thieves operate this time of year.  They're also lurking on-line.

People are always sending me emails and links to websites that they think are suspicious. One thing I've noticed is that, over time, these fake sites are getting better.  It's getting harder to spot when someone is trying to rip you off.

There are some things you can do to reduce the chances that your on-line shopping experience doesn't end up with you a victim of internet crime.

The first precaution you should take comes before you even start your shopping: make sure your security software is up-to-date. It's your first line of defence against hackers and spammers.

Once you start shopping, stick to sites you know and trust.  Don't be fooled by an email that claims it will transfer you to the site you want if you just click on a link.  Search for the site yourself.  It also wouldn't hurt to check the retailer with the Better Business Bureau or similar consumer site before deciding to shop there.

After you've opened the site you want to shop on, look around.  Not for bargains, but for security features.  Some browsers show a padlock symbol somewhere on the page to assure you it's secure.  The address line of a truely secure site usually begins with https, the "s" indicating it's a safe site.

There are other markers to watch for.  For instance, since the most common way to pay for on-line purchases is with a credit card, you may find a logo like "Verified by VISA". It's an extra layer of security offered by the credit card company itself. But be careful. One of the fake sites I examined had a very authentic-looking logo for "Verified by VISA". The problem is, the logo, like the whole site, was fake. The clue? On legitimate sites you can click on the VISA logo and it will open another window, explaining how the program works.  On the fake site, the logo didn't do anything.

As with any financial transaction, after a bout of on-line Christmas shopping, you should keep a close eye on your bank accounts and credit card statements to spot suspicious transactions as soon as possible.

Of course, being careful still won't protect you from Christmas fruitcake, ugly ties and sweaters or other perils of the season.
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About the Author

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 30 years in Atlantic Canada, covering everything from princes to politicians to prostitutes, and a whole lot of stuff in between. These days, he focusses on stories involving crime and public safety.

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