The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) Watchdog column
Nov 22, 2012 (The Morning Call (Allentown - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
In Christmases past, if you were hot for the hottest holiday gifts, you had to plow your way through store doors in the morning blackness of Black Friday.
Then came Cyber Monday, when you could land an even better deal shopping online while casually camped on your couch.
In Christmas present, those worlds will collide for the savviest shoppers. They'll be online while shopping in stores, using their smartphones to compare prices, make purchases and receive special discounts reserved just for customers using the store's mobile application better known as an "app."
But you have to be smart when using your smartphone. While it's super for streamlining your shopping, it's also the latest avenue for grinches to steal your Christmas.
A survey this month by retail consultant Deloitte found that two of every three smartphone owners plan to use their smartphone for holiday shopping.
"We anticipate that retailers will increasingly interact with mobile shoppers this holiday season," Alison Paul, a Deloitte vice chairwoman, said in a statement accompanying the survey.
The Deloitte survey also found about half of shoppers plan to use social media while playing Santa. With many of you likely to tap into Facebook and Twitter from your smartphone, that could doubly expose you to scrooges determined to be naughty while you're being nice.
Social media scams and malicious mobile applications are the top online shopping scams identified by online security company McAfee this holiday season.
"Cybercriminals know social media networks are a good place to catch you off guard because we're all 'friends,' right " McAfee said in its "12 Scams of Christmas warning.
Stores want you to download their app, and many offer specials available only to app users. Other apps aren't store-specific, but allow you to comparison shop and get access to specials at many stores.
Kenneth Wisnefski, an online marketing expert and founder of WebiMax, says some of the best mobile apps include Amazon's Price Checker, which allows you to scan a product's bar code and see comparable prices at Amazon and other online retailers; TGI Black Friday, which allows you to search thousands of deals; and Shopkick, which allows you to unlock specials at stores such as Macy's, Best Buy and Target when you enter those stores.
I can't vouch for any of those apps personally, so do your homework before trying them. Be cautious when downloading any new app to your Android or iPhone. Get recommendations from friends and read reviews. If you have an Android, make sure it has virus protection.
Robert Siciliano, an online security expert at McAfee, told me smartphone users should obtain apps only from official app stores like Google Play and avoid downloading them from unknown sources because they might not be adequately investigated for safety.
"We're seeing a significant increase in mobile malware targeting Androids," Siciliano said.
Bad apps can do a variety of damage, ranging from installing spyware on your phone to sending out costly text messages without your permission. It's a good idea to keep your apps updated, too, as the updates may include security patches to address any potential holes.
Smartphone use goes hand in hand with social media. Your friends likely will be bragging on Facebook and Twitter about the great deals they got. Stores that you follow will be bombarding you with offers.
The trick is knowing which messages are real.
"Be careful when clicking or liking posts, while taking advantage of raffle contests and fan page deals that you get from your 'friends' that advertise the hottest holiday gifts, installing apps to receive discounts, and your friends' accounts being hacked and sending out fake alerts," McAfee warns.
The Better Business Bureau recently warned about a scam on Facebook that tries to trick people into thinking they can get a free iPad mini.
Wi-Fi isn't just found in trendy cafes and bookstores anymore. Many stores have it. If you'll be browsing online while you're browsing store aisles, be smart about the sites you visit while connected to public Wi-Fi.
While it may be fine for browsing, it may not be secure for actually buying something online or doing banking or other transactions. Siciliano suggests doing that through your phone's Internet connection and not on public Wi-Fi where anyone could be spying.
"You're better off on the carrier's connection," he said. "There's a tremendous amount of encryption there."
No matter where and how you shop, the best way to protect yourself from fraud is to be cautious. That means everything from stashing your shopping bags out of sight in the trunk to keeping your credit cards out of sight until it's time to swipe.
When you get home, make a list of what you've bought and check it twice against your bank and credit card statements. Dispute any unknown charges immediately.
More tips for protecting yourself from fraud this holiday season are on my blog at http://blogs.mcall.com/watchdog/.
The Watchdog is published Thursdays and Sundays. Contact me by email at email@example.com, by phone at 610-841-2364 (ADOG), by fax at 610-820-6693, or by mail at The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA, 18101. Follow me on Twitter at mcwatchdog and on Facebook at Morning Call Watchdog.
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