Yes folks, Black Friday is less than two weeks away and the silly season is upon us. As someone born and bred in good old North Jersey (until I could legally escape), land of honey and shopping malls, this is a time so deeply ingrained into my subconscious that I’ve occasionally found myself sleepwalking around the nearest parking lot, looking for our old wood-paneled station wagon.

These days, thanks to the wonder of the Internet, anyone can experience the hustle and bustle of the Paramus malls from the comfort of their own home. And to help keep your shopping experience authentic, there’s no shortage of cheats and thieves ready to yank your painstakingly chosen gifts right out of the virtual trunk of your web browser. Of course they might take your house with it, which, even in Jersey (despite the legends) is somewhat rare.

In the spirit of safe and happy holidays, Securosis presents our top 6 tips for safe online shopping, simply presented for the technical or non-technical consumer. Some of these tips also apply to the real world for those of you who just can’t restrain the draw to the mall. Spread the fun, and feel free to post your own tips in the comments.

  1. Use a dedicated credit card (or PayPal account) for holiday shopping. Our first tip is also useful for the physical world- still the origin of most credit card fraud. Take your card with the lowest limit and use it exclusively for holiday shopping. Use one you can monitor online, and check the activity daily through the holidays (weekly at a minimum). Make sure it isn’t a debit card, and turn off any automatic payments (so you can dispute any charges before making payments). Keep tracking activity at least weekly for 12 months after the holidays are over, or cancel the card. DON”T USE A DEBIT CARD!!! These don’t have the same protections as credit cards, and you’re responsible for fraudulent charges. As for PayPal, read on to our second tip.
  2. Only use credit cards at major online retailers; use a PayPal debit account for smaller shops . Sure, you might get a better deal from, but many smaller retailers don’t follow appropriate security practices. Those hosted with a major service are often okay, but few consumers really want to check the pedigree for specialty shops. Instead, create a dedicated PayPal account that’s not linked to any of your bank accounts or credit cards. Credit it with as much cash as you think you need and use it for those riskier online payments. Worst case, you only lose what’s in that account, and you can easily cancel it anytime.
  3. Never, ever, ever ,ever click on ANYTHING in email. It doesn’t matter if your best friend sent you a really good deal in email. It doesn’t matter if it’s your favorite retailer and you’ve always gotten email offers from them. Repeat after me, “I will never click on anything in email.” No special offers. No Ebay member to member emails. No “fraud alerts” to check your account. No nothing. Ever. Nada. Attackers are getting more and more refined in their attacks, some of which are very hard to distinguish from legitimate emails. Spam waves over the holidays are expected to break records this year. When you see an interesting offer in email, and it’s a business you want to deal with, just open your web browser, type in the address manually, and browse to the item, offer, or account area. Email is the single biggest source of online fraud; never click on anything in email!
  4. Update your browser- use Firefox 2.0, IE 7, Safari, or Opera. Turn on the highest security settings. Over the past month or so we’ve seen major updates of Firefox and Internet Explorer, both with significant security enhancements. Safari (installed on every Mac) and Opera are also good options. Firefox 2.0 and IE 7 include features to help detect fraudulent sites- if you see a warning, shut down the browser and don’t go back to that site. All of these browsers will ask you before installing any software when you visit a site; when shopping, never allow the site to install anything. Either it’s a fraud or they don’t deserve your business. Most browsers now install with security enabled by default, so we won’t be providing detailed instructions here. Just download them. Now. Then come back and read the rest of this list. We’ll wait.
  5. Download and install the Netcraft toolbar if you’re on Windows. This is a free toolbar for Firefox and IE that helps identify phishing sites. Although both browsers include their own anti-phishing technologies (as do many other toolbars), it never hurts to double up during the holiday season. Think of it as the deadbolt lock to enhance the regular lock on your front door. If you don’t want it bothering you all the time, at least use it during your holiday shopping and turn it off later.
  6. Keep your antivirus, firewall, antispam, and anti-spyware up to date. I don’t really care which product you use (and truth be told, we don’t really like most of the commercial ones) but as bad as some of these perform they really are essential on a PC. Before the holidays we plan on putting together a list of free, non-geek security tools, but for you non-technical type any of the shrink wrapped major vendors offers at least a modicum of protection. For Windows users, Windows Defender is a good, free additional tool to limit spyware. Right now there’s no known spyware for Macs.

These six simple steps won’t stop all fraud, but will significantly reduce both the chances you’ll be a victim, and the damage if you are. Feel free to email them to your friends and family who won’t normally browse a security site like this one.

And stay tuned for our non-geek guide to securing a Windows computer for free…