BlackFriday_SQTomorrow is Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year. For those willing to wake up very early, brave the elements, crowds and a fair bit of jostling, it’s a chance to get those holiday items at a great price.

According to the National Retail Federation’s survey, more than 92 million people went to the store on Black Friday in 2013. The total for Thanksgiving weekend was 141 million. Overall spending last year was $57.4 billion and each shopper spent an average of $407.

While Cyber Monday continues to lead the way in terms of online sales, the number of people switching on their PCs or mobile devices to purchase some of their holiday gifts over Thanksgiving and Black Friday has increased year-on-year.

Retailers have announced their Black Friday deals much earlier as well, making heavy use of the media, social media and email campaigns. Some are also combining online and in-store promotions.

Tablet and mobile devices have made it so convenient that you can shop without having to queue up in the cold. It’s convenient because you can compare prices with a few clicks and you don’t have to spend half a day walking up and down the store looking for items. And you don’t have to fight your way through a throng of hyper shoppers and flailing elbows. You also benefit from free delivery.

Don’t shop in the dark

If you intend on shopping online this year, keep your eyes open for the best bargains but watch out for those convincing scams. The URL in the title of this post does not take you to that site, but to this blog. However, would you click on that link in a colorful email, presumably from a well-known retailer and offering up to 90% off selected items if bought online by midday Friday?

Most people would. They see the words ‘safely’, ‘black Friday’ and ‘shop’ – and the email looks genuine. There’s also the urgency to purchase and beat the deadline and not miss out on the deal of the year. It doesn’t cross their mind that the link could redirect them to a fake site, that malware could be downloaded in the background or they could be taken to a form requesting personal and financial details.

It takes just one click and it’s suddenly a very black day indeed.

Shopping online is always risky business but the risk is much higher during the holiday season. With over $700 million spent online last year on Thanksgiving Day, cybercriminals are salivating at the amount of money and size of audience they can target.

In a year that has seen both ups and downs for physical retailers, the day after Thanksgiving is a perfect the opportunity for scammers to hijack Black Friday, thus warranting both users and even their employers to put measures in place to protect themselves from being scammed and to protect their computers and devices from malware, spyware and other criminal software that may be surreptitiously placed onto a user’s computer by a Black Friday scam. Up-to-date antivirus and antispyware software will help protect against many types of malware, while web content filtering to prevent inadvertent access to known infected and fake web sites from many phishing attacks and search engine poisoning activities.

Black Friday is not a US-only event anymore. Certain retailers – particularly those with their origins in the US – have been running small Black Friday promotions outside the US for several years. However, the ‘novelty value’ in countries such as the UK was most clearly illustrated in 2013 by mass crowds and civil unrest at some major retailers as shoppers battled for the best deals at stores, while others pounced on web sites offering similar one-day limited offers, causing several retail sites to crash under the weight of traffic.

With this year’s Black Friday expected to be an even bigger shopping event, those outside the US who are not as familiar with the concept are even more vulnerable when it comes to malware, phishing attacks and other fraudulent scams designed to dupe them and extract money, information and other useful computer access.

Wherever you are, the message is simple: Pay attention when shopping online. If a deal is too good to be true, then it’s highly likely to be a scam. If you receive email offers for discounts and so on, open a new browser window and type in the address of the store manually. Don’t click on the link, especially if the vendor is not familiar. If the offer is genuine, you’ll find it on their website as well.

Happy Thanksgiving to our colleagues and readers in the US.