The holidays are here and shoppers are out (and in) in full force.  It seems as the years go by, online shopping is becoming the ideal way to get your loved ones, and yourself, gifts for the holidays.  Cyber-Monday is growing every year with deals getting better than those offered on black Friday.  Retailers are offering deals online that you just can’t get in the stores.

I still go out on black Friday, but it is more of a nostalgic thing.  I like to watch people go crazy and reminisce about the good old days when shoppers would trample each other to get the biggest sale items.  Alas, online shopping will eventually make that a thing of the past.  So instead of braving the cold and risking your life as you maneuver through the crowds trying not to get run over, shoppers can sit in the comfort of their own homes sipping warm drinks while they buy everything they need.

So if you’re no longer in physical danger, you’re good to go, right?  Not so fast.  Don’t let the coziness of your home fool you into thinking that everything is okay.  Your life is still in danger.  Hackers, crackers, spammers, and thieves all want the same thing – your life.  They want your credit cards, bank accounts, social security numbers, club cards, names, addresses, medical records, and money.  You name it, they want it.

So how do these villains get this information from your life?  Lots of ways, but we will focus on three.

1. Malware.  Viruses, spyware, Trojans, and all the other mailicious tools out there come together to steal your information.  Once a computer gets infected with these malware programs, they can steal any information you put into your computer.  When you purchase that new blanket that looks like a backwards robe you have been dying for with your credit card, the attacker gets your card too.  Most of the time, the user won’t even know they are infected.  There are no symptoms.  The last thing a virus that steals information wants is to be detected.  The usual annoying pop-ups and other tell-tale signs of infection just aren’t there.

2. Fake/fraudulent Websites.  Spam can go along in this category.  Most times users visit these malicious sites due to spam.  You get an email from your favorite department store advertising a deal that would be crazy to pass up.  You click the link to go to the deal online and purchase the holy grail of all deals.  Days pass, then weeks and you still haven’t gotten your order.  Then you check your credit card to see if the order processed only to find that it has been maxed out by purchases you never made.  You just got scammed.  The same can happen to your bank accounts.  Attackers set up very legitimate looking websites to trick you into thinking that you are on the real site.  The layout, colors, and logos are all perfectly placed.  Even the shopping cart looks real.  But it is just a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

3. Non-patched Software.  If you have heard of zero-day attacks, this is how they are so effective.  They find holes in a program that has not been fixed yet and send all sorts of attacks out there to compromise as many machines as possible before the holes are patched.  From the operating system, to software installed on the computer, they are all vulnerable if not properly updated.  A lot has been in the news about Adobe and the exploits that have been found.

So what can be done to protect yourself this holiday season?

1. Get and maintain security software.  Anti-virus, anti-spyware, and a firewall are the minimum features you should have installed.  It is not enough to just have them installed.  Update them.  Do not neglect your security.

2. Only do business with reputable vendors.  If you have never heard of a vendor that you would like to purchase something from, research them first.  Google searches are great at uncovering fraudulent websites.  Do searches to find legitimate reviews on the site, or see if the site has been flagged by other consumers or organizations as fraudulent.  If an email is received from a vendor you know, if at all possible, go to the website directly by typing the address in yourself.  A link can look legitimate, but when clicked, it can redirect somewhere else.

3. Update, Update, Update.  Keep your operating system and installed programs up to date.  If it is offered, enable automatic updates for your applications.  Too many users neglect the health of their software.  Updates are released to fix bugs, improve performance, and most importantly, to fix security holes.  Even if you have security software installed, if programs aren’t patched it’s like having a bouncer at your door but all the windows are open.

This doesn’t mean one should shun online shopping.  In fact, we should embrace it.  Just like you maintain your car for safety, do the same for your computer and you will get from point A to point BEST DEAL EVER safely.

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