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Op-Ed: Staying digitally secure this holiday season

It’s a particularly risky time of the year as shoppers of all ages, including those with less experience recognizing digital threats, flock to search engines and online channels to place orders before holiday delivery date cutoffs.

Opportunistic hackers know just how to create enticing, seasonally-appropriate lures—and even some of the simplest scams can fool adept online shoppers. 

At Fortinet, we analyze some of the most common cyber threats to prepare for during the holidays—along with a few unique outliers we’re expecting to see this season.

Online holiday gift card scams
Gift cards are a common vector for cybercriminals and scammers, since stealing the money loaded onto them is like stealing cash: Once it’s taken, there’s virtually no way for a victim to get it back (unlike credit card transactions, which allow chargebacks).

Some will go as far as to manipulate gift cards sold in stores, scratching off the layer of protective coating to write down pin numbers, and then “replacing” the coating with a sticker so it looks brand new. Scammers will plug those PINs into software that sends an alert once someone has purchased and activated their gift card — and then proceed to drain all its funds. Cybercriminals may also attempt to scam via email.

If you’ve ever received a strange email urging you to help a friend or family member with an emergency — and that email led you down the path of providing a gift card as payment — that email was most certainly a scam.  

The best way to avoid becoming the target of gift card scams is to remain vigilant and follow these four best practices: 

1. Set a strong password: For every online account, make sure you’re not repeating the same password across any platforms. Use a password management app to keep track of different accounts. Don’t forget to use random, non-duplicate User IDs as well if the site allows. 

2. Monitor your accounts: Regularly update your login credentials and monitor your payment accounts for signs of unusual activity. 

3. Inspect gift cards: If you purchase gift cards in stores, visually inspect them for signs of tampering before loading funds and stick with retailers who keep their gift cards secured behind a checkout counter. 

4. Never make purchases via email: Never agree to pay for online purchases in gift cards when prompted via email — in these instances, the item you’re trying to “purchase” probably doesn’t exist. Instead, stick with retailers you know and trust, and make sure the site’s checkout system is secure. Credit cards are the best way to pay since most offer some level of fraud protection.  

Video conferencing phishing scams
For families that are unable to travel to be with one another this holiday season, celebrating virtually is the next best option. But, it’s important to be on the lookout for certain social interaction-based scams that continue to target those who are letting their guard down.

As we continue to rely on video conferencing as a tool for social interaction, cybercriminals will continue to execute phishing campaigns that take advantage of these video-based platforms. These phishing attempts involve emails containing phony links that prompt the user to download a new version of their video conferencing software. The link will direct them to a third-party website where the user can download an installer.

In some cases, the program does install the video conferencing software — but it also loads a remote-access Trojan malware program on the host. This program gives scammers access to the user’s sensitive data and information, which is either sold on the Black Market or leveraged for identity theft.  

To avoid video conferencing scams, always follow cybersecurity best practices: Look at the sender’s email address before clicking on emailed links or downloading attachments, even if they appear to come from a trusted source. In most cases, phishing emails are sent from addresses that do not contain the organization’s legitimate web address.

Author Aamir Lakhani is global security strategist and researcher at Fortinet.

Video conferencing-themed phishing attempts are only the tip of the iceberg this holiday season. Unfortunately, other forms of phishing are still on the rise, including those that target your phone or mobile devices. The telephone version of phishing is sometimes referred to as “vishing,” and text message scams on SMS are called “smishing.”

A new method we are starting to see is scammers adding a QR code on popular products and making banners or marketing materials and leaving them at physical stores. If a victim sees a product they like, and a sign telling them they can get the product faster or at a discounted price, they are more than likely to scan the QR code. But this leads them to a scam website or attempts to download malware. 

Final thoughts on digital safety
With the right digital safety precautions, it’s still possible to enjoy your favorite traditions safely. Thanks to digital platforms, we can connect with family and friends from the comfort and safety of our homes — and check off those gift lists without setting foot in crowded malls and shopping centers. Educate employees, family members, and friends about what to avoid and keep devices updated with the latest security software. 

It just requires a new level of vigilance that, itself, can become the new normal.

Author Details
Author Details
This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

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