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What you need to know before you buy online this Black Friday and Cyber Monday

From social media scams to bogus requests for personal info, spot the warning signs and shop safely.

From social media scams to bogus requests for personal info, spot the warning signs and shop safely

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Few things are more satisfying than scoring a great deal online, and the buffet of bargains served up annually around American Thanksgiving can be irresistible to many Canadian shoppers.  

According to the Retail Council of Canada, Black Friday and Cyber Monday have officially eclipsed Boxing Day in terms of the most popular time to shop, and a growing number of Canadians admit that they prefer shopping from the comfort of their own home

"Shoppers are always looking for great deals on big-ticket items and Black Friday and Cyber Monday deliver on that," says Michael Bancroft, co-host and executive producer of Beyond Innovation, a television program covering global technology. Bancroft points to recent research by discount-shopping browser extension Honey, which found savings on Cyber Monday averaged 21% while average Black Friday savings come in at roughly 18%. 

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

While online bargain hunters don't have crowds to contend with, there are a growing number of scams that ramp up around popular retail holidays, targeting shoppers via social media, email and websites. 

"Thanks to chip and PIN technology, [credit] card fraud has become more difficult in brick-and-mortar retailers in Canada," says Sukhmani Dev, Vice President of Digital Payments and Labs, at Mastercard in Canada. "When it comes to shopping online, however, it is harder for a business to verify that the person making the purchase is in fact who they claim to be. This results in more fraud taking place online, where customers are not physically present, than in-store, where customers are there for the transaction."

But there are some simple precautions consumers can take to make online buying safer. Here's how to spot potential scams and protect yourself against them.

1. The scam: Bogus coupons for well-known brands 

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Hackers recognize the allure of really great coupons – especially those associated with recognizable labels. Inboxes and social media feeds have become popular targets in recent years, with cybercriminals flaunting too-good-to-be-true deals via phishing emails and fraudulent Facebook posts. Once clicked, these coupons typically lead off to a website demanding credit card details and personal information.

How you can protect yourself: Keep your money and your identity safe by scrutinizing all coupons that come your way electronically. "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is," Bancroft explains. "For example, a blanket 50 per cent discount for all items at an electronics store doesn't pass the smell test. Also, any coupon you need to pay for is almost certainly bogus; scammers often copy promo codes and coupons and try to sell them to unsuspecting shoppers. Be on the lookout for coupons with no expiry date, as that's another telltale sign of fraud." 

2. The scam: Shipping alerts that lead to ransomware

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Ransomware attacks are on the rise and victims range from individuals to multinational companies and entire American cities. In all cases data is held hostage until a ransom is paid for its release. During peak shopping season, hackers tend to target consumers via email with fake delivery notices. Fraudulent alerts can range from "we couldn't deliver your parcel" to "please confirm your shipment" and taking the bait by clicking can cause malware to invade your computer.

How you can protect yourself: Paying attention to detail is your best defence, according to Bancroft. The recipient's name, contents of the package, and sender information on the shipping label are all important things to look for before you click.  "Also pay careful attention to spelling and grammar in these shipping notices; errors can indicate a scam, though a lack of errors doesn't guarantee the notice is legitimate," says Bancroft.

3. The scam: Web-based credit card skimming

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Once associated with sketchy ATM machines and gas pumps, credit card skimmers – devices attached to payment terminals that are designed to steal data each time a credit card's magnetic strip is swiped – have officially gone digital. Cybercriminal groups are increasingly hacking into popular ecommerce sites and installing script to harvest payment information in real time. Both Ticketmaster and British Airways were recently targeted by an e-skimming collective of hackers known as Magecart.

How you can protect yourself: Opt for financial products that provide peace of mind. Dev points to Mastercard's Zero Liability Protection, where cardholders know that the financial institution that issued their Mastercard credit card won't hold them responsible for unauthorized use, provided they have exercised reasonable care in safeguarding their card, PIN and password and that they immediately report any suspected theft to their financial institution.

"To further secure payments, Mastercard uses the latest technologies including biometrics, artificial intelligence, and authentication tools such as Mastercard Identity Check, to help retailers verify customers are who they say they are," says Dev. "Mastercard Identity Check works by taking into account over 150 different variables of a transaction, which empowers a credit card issuer to make a more accurate, insight-based decision on whether or not the cardholder making the purchase is valid and if the transaction should be approved. In cases where additional authentication is needed, it can be provided in other ways, such as through a one-time password."

Another way Mastercard is ensuring the payment experience is both convenient and secure is through tokenization, which replaces the 16-digit credit card number with a unique digital identifier called a token. This way, when shoppers store their credit card with a retailer and make a purchase, the actual credit card details are not exposed, and instead, this token is used. Tokenization brings an added layer of security to transactions. 

Overall, Black Friday and Cyber Monday remain the best days of the year to take advantage of great deals online and, with the right precautionary measures, consumers can do so safely and in the comfort of their own living room.

This is paid content produced on behalf of Mastercard. This is not CBC journalistic content.