Cyber-Monday_SQIt’s that time of the year again; two of the biggest shopping days of the year are coming up fast.  Hot on the heels of Black Friday comes Cyber Monday. The nice thing about the latter is that it doesn’t involve standing in long lines outside stores at 3:00 a.m. in freezing weather, waiting for the chance to push your way through a crowd of not-very-polite strangers who are bent on grabbing the last Elsa doll or Hunger Games bow and arrow set – the one your daughter has her heart set on.

Amazon, the acknowledged king of online retailing, is gearing up for mad holiday rush with the company forecasting sales of $27.3 to $20.3 billion and profits ranging from a $570 million loss to a $430 million gain. Seems like some pretty big figures, but the forecast is lower than analysts had predicted. The company continues to spend more than it brings in, investing billions of dollars in operations as it sells everything from pet food to cloud services. Now the company is planning to start hiring drone pilots to remotely control small aircraft called octocopters that will provide same-day delivery of packages.

Meanwhile, Walmart is trying to lure customers away from Amazon and other online retail outlets, promising this holiday season to match the prices of cyber vendors at its bricks and mortar stores. However, the retail giant seems to be seeing the handwriting on the wall, and what it says is that its future might not be in its big box stores. Sales figures from the last quarter showed a 0.5 percent growth in its same-store sales, but a 21 percent growth in online sales.

I’ll confess right up front: I’m an online shopping convert and I’ve whole-heartedly embraced the convenience of buying from the comfort of my home, as my life seems to get busier, traffic in my metropolitan area gets heavier, and e-commerce transactions get easier and more secure.  My husband and I both have Amazon Prime accounts and buy books, music, computers, jewelry, dog food and much more through the magic of one-click shopping.

Once upon a time, I was wary of purchasing anything substantial without being able to see it and touch it first, but experience proved that with Amazon, returns and exchanges are quick and easy. Recently, I even bought a formal dress through Amazon to wear when my husband and I renew our wedding vows in December. With next-day delivery, I knew I had plenty of time to send it back and get something else if it didn’t work – but I love it and the fit is perfect.

As much of a fan of online shopping as I am, I’m also well aware of the dangers of this holiday shopping season for those who are looking for an online bargain. Phishing scams proliferate at this time of the year, with many of them offering popular products at incredibly low prices. These scams generally work the same way as most phishing attacks; you get an email message that looks like a legitimate advertising ploy, but when you click the link, the web page on which you land is set up not to sell you something but to con you into entering your credit card information so it can be used by identity thieves.

Often the email and phishing site will be constructed to look as if it’s that of a reputable online retailer that you trust – such as Amazon, Walmart.com, Target.com, etc.  If you’ve done business with those companies in the past, there’s a good chance that you will also get real advertising emails from them during this season, and it can be difficult to tell the genuine article from the fake. If the ad presents something you’re interested in buying, your best strategy is to never use the email link to get to the site, but instead type in the site’s known URL, even though it’s a little less convenient.

Another scam is, instead of masquerading as a retailer, to bet on the chance that you’ve already ordered items and send messages purporting to be from UPS, Fed Ex, or the post office regarding a problem delivering your package. Again, the objective is to get you to click a link, which will take you to a site that will either ask you for personal info or download malware to your computer – or both.

There are many variations on this, such as scammers who pretend to be from retailers following up on your purchases or from your credit card company or bank, advising you of problems with your recent transactions. Instead of responding to such messages online, your best bet is probably to make a phone call to the customer service department of the store, credit card company or bank. Of course, you should use the phone number on your receipt or card, not a phone number given in the suspicious email.

Email isn’t the only way phishers snag victims, either. Given the popularity of social networking sites, it should come as no surprise that the scammers are now setting up fake Facebook and Twitter promotions that work in basically the same way. This is a logical move on the part of the phishers, since many young people now don’t even bother to check their email accounts; they do all of their online communications through social networks.

When you’re shopping online, always be sure that the site uses encryption on pages that ask for your credit card or other personal data. Check for the icon in the browser that indicates it’s a secure site and “https” in the URL, and actually click on and read the certificate information; after all, scammers can use SSL, too – you want to be sure the certificate was actually issued to the entity that the site claims to belong to.

You can feel most confident when the site uses an Extended Validation Certificate; those are the ones that turn the address bar green and it means the certificate was issued by a certification authority that passed an independent audit and follows strict requirements to establish the identity of the entity to which the certificate is issued.

Don’t let all these warnings deter you from shopping online; remember that there are plenty of identity thieves preying on “in person” customers, not to mention the data breaches that can expose your credit card info whether you shop via the web or at the physical store. Just don’t let the excitement of finding those great Cyber Monday deals keep you from exercising precautions, to make sure your dream gift purchases doesn’t turn into a nightmare.