November 18, 2022
It’s tough to find someone who doesn’t enjoy the holiday season. Unfortunately, cybercriminals love them for many of the same reasons we do. We’re traveling more, we’re busy and distracted, we buy more online from merchants we don’t know well, and we’re especially inclined to give to what looks like a worthy cause.
In addition to traditional advice, like not overindulging or discussing politics with extended family, I’ve included lists of dos and don’ts to help you stay safe this holiday season, as well as some tips about common holiday scams.
Your To-Do List
1. Do Use Secure Networks
It’s tempting to hop on a restaurant’s Wi-Fi when you’re grabbing a quick bite, but don’t make online purchases until you can get to a secure network. You can also use your phone as a hotspot if you really need to shop on the go.
Pro tip: one good way to be mindful of connectivity is to disable auto-connect on your devices.
2. Do Think Before You Click
Holidays are a busy time. It’s common for people to be especially distracted or rushed. Cybercriminals have figured this out, and it unfortunately plays right into their hands. According to a recent survey, almost half of those who fell for phishing schemes report being distracted as the primary reason.
Pro tip: be especially careful not to open emails from people you don’t know, or click on any links or attachments.
3. Do Recognize Phishing Attempts
61% of Americans are highly vulnerable to phishing scams. That number seems high, and while many people assume they are too smart to fall for such a thing, cybercriminals have gotten better at making phishing scams harder to spot. In addition to email, phishing is also conducted over social media, where users are less likely to be on their guard, and cybercriminals are now using more social engineering techniques to fool their victims.
You can’t just assume that an email that looks like it’s from a company or a person you trust is safe. Not only have cybercriminals gotten better at impersonating legitimate senders, but they’ve also improved their spelling and grammar.
Pro tip: any time you’re asked to enter login credentials or other sensitive data through a link, it should give you pause.
4. Do Think Before You Pay
If you didn’t think the IRS ever did anything good for you, here’s a gift from Uncle Sam. They’ve created a handy Tax Exempt Organization Search Tool so you can be sure the dollars you’re giving are actually going to a good cause.
Do a little due diligence before you give, and be suspicious of emails or phone calls soliciting donations. Never pay through emailed links. Instead, navigate to an organization directly.
Pro tip: if you do choose to donate online, make sure the website URL is prefaced by https. That https may look like a small detail, but it’s important. It means that at this site, your communication and data will be encrypted in transit from your browser to their server.
5. Do Shop Securely
That last tip goes for online shopping as well. And while many shoppers are hoping to find interesting products and support smaller shops, it’s safer to shop with retailers you already trust. Hopefully, you can find shops that fit both categories.
Pro tip: Holiday shopping season leads to lots of returns. Check the company’s return policy before you buy, and beware of offers that are too good to be true, as counterfeit items are commonly sold online.
6. Do Pay Wisely
Debit cards are convenient, and it’s one way to stop yourself from overspending. But it’s safer to use credit cards instead. You can also use a third-party payment service like Apple Pay.
Pro tip: if someone asks you to pay for something through gift cards, don’t. I’ll get into gift card scams later.
7. Do Monitor Your Accounts
If you aren’t already in the habit, check your financial accounts for unauthorized purchases.
Pro tip: many companies now offer text or email alerts to warn you of any suspicious activity. Check to see if you can get alerts set up on your accounts.
8. Do Use Multi-Factor Authentication
You’ve heard it before, but while strong, unique passwords are helpful, they don’t do much good if you’ve given your credentials away or answered common account recovery questions (like your first car or the name of a childhood pet) online.
While highly skilled and highly motivated attackers can sometimes still bypass Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA), it’s difficult and time-consuming, and most hackers don’t bother. MFA successfully blocks 99.9% of attacks.
Pro tip: many MFA methods are quite quick. For example, an organization might send you a push notification on your phone, and you can authenticate yourself in one easy tap.
9. Do Update Your Software
All of your online devices are susceptible to malware and viruses. Keeping your software, apps, and browsers updated is an important part of proper cybersecurity hygiene. Yes, it’s annoying, and sometimes updates can cause additional frustrations. But those frustrations are nothing compared to what a cybercriminal can do.
Pro tip: choose a time to install updates when you won’t be in a rush. Sometimes they can take additional time.
Your Don’t List (Check This One Twice!)
1. Don't Tell Everyone When Your Home Will Be Empty
It’s nice to be able to share travel photos on social media. You can. Just wait until you get back before you share the details of your trip, especially when you’re leaving and returning.
2. Don't Reuse Passwords
This bad habit is tough to break. If you’ve been reusing passwords, stop, and immediately update the passwords to your financial accounts. Yes, now.
Some accounts are more secure than others. If your login credentials are stolen from a less secure account, you definitely don’t want to give hackers instant access to your finances.
3. Don't Click Suspicious Links
You probably are not, in fact, the instant winner of a $500 gift card. And if you click on a link promising something too good to be true, you’re not a lucky shopper either; you’re likely to become a hacker’s next victim.
Whether it comes through text or email, be wary of amazing but random offers.
4. Don't Provide Your Password or Financial Information
It happens so quickly — you get an email or a direct message on social media that includes a link to a fun video you’re in! You click the link, and it tells you to enter your password. You do. But there’s no video. You just gave your password away to a hacker.
Don’t ever provide your password or any financial information so easily. In fact, if your bank ever calls you and asks for this information, they aren’t your bank.
5. Don’t Put Details in Automated Messages
Automated email responses are helpful and sometimes necessary when you’ll be away from the office for a period of time. Keep your messages short and vague. For example, don’t say you’ll be out of town or indicate how long you’ll be away.
Common Holiday Scams
Gift Card Scams
Did your manager contact you to get gift cards to pay for a holiday party? Double-check before you help them out — this email is probably coming from a hacker. Contact your manager through a number you know, not the one provided in the email.
Retail Spoofing and Phishing
These common scams happen year-round, but with increased holiday shopping, they turn a tidy profit for thieves this time of year. Cybercriminals are getting better at impersonating retailers. Again, regard email links with suspicion and navigate directly to websites.
Charitable Giving Scams
Aside from vetting an organization through the IRS’s Exempt Organization Search tool and giving a donation directly through their website, be especially cautious this time of year. Don’t let someone rush you into making a donation on the phone — that’s a common scammer trick.
Scammers often start by thanking you for making a donation you never made. They can even make their caller ID look like it’s local, or use legitimate-sounding names for their charities. It’s unfortunate, but where there’s a worthy cause or a tragedy, there’s someone who’s figured out a way to exploit it.
Earlier I mentioned not using public Wi-Fi to make online purchases. That’s because criminals can access the information that’s sent through a public connection. Identity theft is definitely more common around the holidays, but with some basic cybersecurity best practices, you can make yourself a much less tempting target.
Smishing refers to phishing scams sent by text (SMS messaging). And if you’ve noticed you’re getting more suspicious text messages, you’re not alone. Over 3.5 billion people get spam text messages daily.
Smishing is just as malicious as phishing, but not as many people are aware that these text messages can be dangerous. Be on the lookout for texts about orders you didn’t make or packages you aren’t expecting.
Of course, these texts are all that more confusing around the holiday season, when people are sending gifts. Be cautious and wait for something to arrive at your door. When in doubt, contact the shipping company or the alleged sender directly.
Happy Holidays From Marco…Really!
The holidays are such an optimistic time, and while most of this blog consists of warnings, I wrote it because I have a tremendous amount of hope. With a bit more knowledge and cyber smarts, together, we can make cybercrime far less profitable.
To that end, if you’d like more resources about how businesses and individuals can keep themselves safe during the holidays and beyond, we recently hosted a free online webinar around this topic. Give it a watch!