The busiest shopping season of the year, the month or so from Black Friday through Dec. 24, makes the difference between an annual profit or loss for many retailers. Consequently, retailers advertise sales, extend store hours, and open or heavily advertise online Internet storefronts to fulfill the demand for holiday gifts.
But a flurry of shopping activity also means more opportunities for identity theft, credit card fraud, delivery package theft, and old-fashioned robbery. And in 2020, the holiday shopping season also brings the added risk of coronavirus exposure.
Stay safe this holiday season by protecting your digital information, physical packages, and personal health.
Safeguard Against COVID-19
We’re all sick of hearing about COVID-19, sick of wearing masks, and sick of staying away from loved ones. But with several highly effective vaccines entering production, we only have to put up with the inconveniences of 2020 for so much longer.
Protect yourself and your loved ones by following a few simple practices this holiday season.
1. Shop Online
The less in-person interaction you have while shopping, the less exposure to pathogens. You don’t have to jostle with other shoppers in crowded indoor spaces, touch grubby surfaces like door handles and credit card machines, and hey — you don’t have to wear a mask.
Coronavirus safety aside, online shopping comes with a slew of other perks, from the convenience of not having to leave the couch to easy comparison shopping and money-saving online shopping hacks like using the Capital One Shopping browser extension to have coupon codes automatically added to your purchases. Many online retailers can even gift-wrap your presents for you, whether you send them directly to your recipient or yourself, saving you even more hassle. And many retailers offer free shipping on online purchases.
2. Avoid Indoor Shopping
If you must venture out for physical shopping, aim to stick with outdoor shopping experiences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that being outdoors presents a lower risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Granted, that proves easier in warmer climates. But look for outdoor shopping options like outdoor Christmas markets that don’t cram you into narrow corridors or indoor checkout lines with sneezing, coughing patrons.
3. Wear a Mask in Public
If you do venture indoors for shopping, wear a store-bought mask or homemade face covering at all times. The CDC notes a range of studies demonstrating that masks do reduce transmission rates and protect both the wearer and those around them.
4. Maintain Your Distance From Other Shoppers
Especially indoors, maintain 6 feet of distance between yourself and others. The fewer people you come into close contact with, the fewer the transmission opportunities, so avoid large crowds.
5. Shop Early & at Off-Peak Hours
There’s nothing worse than holiday shopping the week before Christmas. From long lines to empty shelves, parking battles and the same few carols on rapid rotation, it was always a nightmarish experience. And that was before a global pandemic killed well over a million people.
Whether you shop online or in person, knock out your holiday shopping early this year. Online inventory might sell out faster as online sales break records, and there will likely be less in-person inventory due to the expected drop in physical shopping.
If you venture out for in-person shopping, do so during off-peak hours to minimize the crowds. Fewer people means shorter lines, easier parking, and less exposure to the virus that has made such a mess of our lives this year.
6. Use Contactless Credit Cards
The fewer common surfaces you have to touch, the better. That goes especially for credit card machines that see dozens of fingers every hour.
Look for the contactless symbol on your credit card: four curved lines similar to a volume symbol. You can also pay some vendors through apps on your phone, such as PayPal, Apple Pay, or Google Pay Send, for another contactless option.
Wave your card or phone and walk out the door.
7. Carry Hand Sanitizer
You can’t go out shopping in person without touching some common surfaces. Even with the latest contactless credit or debit card, you’ll still touch door handles, toilet handles, bathroom sink faucets, and many other surfaces through a dozen thoughtless motions like leaning against counters or tapping your fingers while waiting.
Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, and use it frequently while out in person. Beyond the coronavirus, it also helps protect against the flu and common colds.
Secure Your Data Online
It seems like every year, at least one major bank or retailer sheepishly admits to a massive data breach exposing millions of Americans’ personal data to identity thieves. But there are steps you can take to prevent identity theft and protect your personal details during the busy holiday shopping season.
8. Monitor Your Card Transactions
Protecting your payment information starts with simple, old-fashioned monitoring of your transactions. It’s often the only way to know if your payment information has been compromised.
Log in at least once per week to check your card transactions. Look for anything suspicious, keeping in mind that the label on your card statement might not reflect the exact store name. If you see a charge you don’t recognize, try searching the merchant’s name exactly as it appears on your statement. You can also contact your card issuer and ask if they offer their own merchant search tool. The more you shop, the more often you should check your transaction ledger against your known purchases.
And as a side benefit, it reminds you just how much you’re spending. It might just leave you with less of a financial holiday hangover.
9. Use Secure Third-Party Payment Tools
Instead, the online retailer receives payment through the secure payment tool, all of which employ world-class security. PayPal even guarantees your security with their PayPal Purchase Protection program. They reimburse you for the full cost of any item purchased online that doesn’t arrive or match the seller’s description.
10. Use One-Time Virtual Credit Card Numbers
You don’t have to give out your real credit card number while shopping online. You can generate virtual credit card numbers for each retailer you patronize. Like setting up an anonymous email and having it forward to your real email address, you can enter your real card number and get a virtual card number that only works for a specified retailer. You can set these for one-time use or recurring payments to the same retailer, such as your monthly streaming service subscription.
Services like Privacy.com also let you set rules on which retailers can charge your card, how much they can charge, and how often. Retake control of your credit cards by only allowing specific uses and using virtual card numbers when shopping at unfamiliar retailers. In the event of a data breach, hackers can’t charge your stolen card numbers when you create virtual card numbers restricted to specific vendors.
11. Check E-Commerce Retailers’ Reviews Before Buying
Some e-commerce websites are more secure and reputable than others.
If you’ve never shopped on a specific website before and don’t know their brand by reputation, invest 60 seconds in a quick Web search. Check how other customers have rated them on traits like security, reliability, customer service, and even shipping speed and correct order delivery.
Remember, the cheapest Cyber Monday deal (or any other online holiday deal) isn’t always the best. Saving a few bucks by buying from an insecure Web store can come back to bite you when a hacker scores your private data or the retailer takes a month to ship your gift or delivers the wrong product.
12. Connection Protection
The online store where you shop isn’t the only security risk when you shop online. Digital thieves can intercept your payment information en route to the online store, harvesting it for later use or sale.
Ideally, only shop using your secure home or office Internet connection. These networks are private and secured, blocking outside access. Avoid shopping online over public Wi-Fi networks such as coffee shops and hotels, which allow anyone to connect.
To add another layer of security to your connection, use a virtual private network (VPN). I’ve used NordVPN and ExpressVPN and have been largely happy with both. While many of the most popular VPNs cost money, there are several free VPN options available.
13. Stop Using the Same Password for Everything
Most people use the same few passwords for every website because they can’t remember 50 different passwords. I’m guilty of this myself. But it’s a terrible idea. If someone gets the password you use for everything, you could find your assets raided in a hurry.
Instead, randomize your passwords and use a password manager to store all your passwords in one place securely. That way, you only need to remember one single password and can simply bookmark the manager website and pull it up at a moment’s notice to copy any given password.
Password managers like 1Password shield your digital data with best-in-class security, unlike that dinky Excel file you’ve been keeping.
Protect Against Delivery Package Theft
The sudden spike in online shopping during the pandemic of 2020 created a parallel surge in porch piracy, or package theft from shoppers’ doorsteps. A search data analysis by Hippo Insurance found that consumer Web searches for terms like “stolen package” skyrocketed in 2020.
As you do more (or all) of your holiday shopping online, take steps to prevent thieves from pilfering your gifts.
14. Ship Orders to Your Workplace
If your employer remains open and convenient to reach, consider shipping your holiday gifts to them rather than your home. The receptionist or a colleague can sign for them if need be, and you can pick them up the next time you go in for work.
Of course, many employers have shuttered during the pandemic, and many employees have started telecommuting. If you can’t ship to your place of work, there are still options besides your home.
15. Ship to a Locker or P.O. Box
When I lived in downtown Baltimore, I never shipped anything to my home. Instead, I kept a post office box and swung by weekly to collect packages and mail.
The post office now offers to sign for your packages when the deliverer requires signatures. And many private mail services even offer to open and scan your mail for you and forward select items to an address you choose.
You can also take advantage of locker services like Amazon Locker and Go Locker to receive packages on your behalf. You can pick them up at your convenience without having to interact with another human being.
16. Collect From Curbside Pickup
If you shop through online retailers with a local brick-and-mortar store, you can often select curbside pickup.
These stores once required you to walk inside to collect your package from a desk. But during the pandemic, many started offering contactless curbside pickup to allow you to swing by, grab your goods, and go. It’s less convenient than at-home delivery but more secure if you worry about porch pirates raiding your stoop.
17. Require a Signature
Often, when you order a package, you can require a signature upon delivery.
That works well for preventing packages from sitting on your stoop for hours on end. But it can also mean repeated delivery misses for people who work outside the home, which can cause the delivery service to return your package as undeliverable. However, for those who work from home or who otherwise plan to be home during the delivery window, requiring a signature means hand delivery for your expensive purchases.
And if a delivery person misses you, they often provide a delivery window for the next attempt, so you can plan to be home for it.
18. Install a Security System
Security systems can keep an eye on your porch 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
Whether you use smart home cameras or install a professional security system, it helps to catch thieves on camera. You might recognize the neighborhood kid that everyone knows as the bad apple or file a police report with footage to catch strangers. The security sticker alone can even deter thieves.
Motion-activated lights can also spook would-be porch pirates, encouraging them to skip your house and find easier prey.
19. Install Physical Security for Your Packages
In addition to a security camera, you can also physically secure deliveries.
One option is a receptacle that locks and protects your deliveries. For example, you can anchor a parcel lockbox from CleverMade to secure it and give your unique combination as part of your delivery instructions. The deliverer opens the lockbox, inserts your package, then closes it again to seal it.
For a less bulky option, try the Frisbee-size Package Guard. Deliverers put the package on top of it, triggering a message to your phone that you received a delivery. If a thief tries to nab your package, it sends you another alert and blasts a porch alarm only your smartphone app can silence.
It may not endear you to your neighbors, but it should send a solid scare through would-be crooks.
20. Use a Smart Door Lock to Grant Entry for Delivery
With a smart door lock, you can grant temporary access for deliverers to open your door and deposit your package. Try the August smart lock for a reputable option.
You don’t necessarily need to grant access to your home, however. Alternatives include your garage or your car, using Amazon’s Key service. You control the access settings through the Amazon Key app and can grant access temporarily or permanently for all Amazon deliveries.
Prevent Theft & Robbery
Thefts don’t just happen on your porch. If you venture out for in-person shopping this holiday season, take steps to protect yourself, your wallet, your car, and all other valuables.
21. Carry a Minimalist Wallet
When you go holiday shopping, you don’t need to carry a giant Costanza wallet with 10 credit cards, five forms of identification, your Social Security card, and a folded piece of paper with all your passwords scribbled on it.
Instead, shop with exactly one credit card, your driver’s license, and almost no cash. In today’s world, you rarely need cash for anything beyond tiny purchases or tipping, as we inch ever closer to a world without wallets. And in the COVID-19 era, most retailers prefer to avoid cash, with some refusing to accept it entirely.
Pick your best cash-back credit cards or travel rewards card, grab a $5 bill or two, and throw them in a slim RFID-blocking wallet, such as the sub-$10 option from Travelambo. If someone lifts it from you, you can make a single phone call to cancel the card and not lose sleep over the lost few dollars in cash or the cheap wallet.
And note that the best credit cards protect against fraudulent purchases. You won’t get stuck footing the bill if someone steals your card and buys a new TV with it.
22. Protect Your Phone From Theft
People steal phones all the time. Keep a strong passcode on your lock screen so the thief can’t press a button and access all your data and contacts.
While you’re at it, change the settings to block turning on airplane mode without unlocking the phone first. If someone steals your phone, you want to be able to track the location.
Finally, install a theft-prevention app like Cerberus or CrookCatcher. These let you track the location remotely and even wipe your phone completely clean in an emergency. On iPhones, you can use the standard Find My app to track the location of all your devices and any authorized friends’ or family members’ devices. It can also help family members track one another if they split up while out holiday shopping so you always know where your kids are and they can always find you.
23. Park Safely
Park your car in a well-lit area as close to the shopping entrance as possible. A long walk through a dimly lit parking garage with lots of shadowy corners spells trouble when you’re carrying hundreds of dollars’ worth of goods with you.
Shopping with a friend can also render you a less appealing target in dark parking garages. Or you could skip the need to park entirely by shopping online.
24. Leave Nothing Showing in Your Car
Don’t tempt thieves by leaving anything on display in your car.
That goes for sunglasses, purses, bags, boxes — even trash. Thieves get curious about the goodies available for taking in your car, and the more you have on display, the more it piques their curiosity.
Between shopping stops, put your purchases in the trunk. If you drive an SUV, pull the cover over your bags in the trunk to prevent prying eyes.
And never, ever leave your car running unattended. In cold weather, people leave their cars running to heat up. Remember: You’ll survive three minutes of chilly temperatures behind the wheel while your car warms up. But you may not have the cash to replace hundreds of dollars in stolen holiday gifts plus your vehicle.
25. Prevent Pickpockets & Purse-Snatchers
These opportunists look for easy prey. Don’t oblige them.
If you carry a wallet on your person, keep it in a front pocket. If you carry a bag, keep it closed with the strap diagonally over your shoulder and around your neck while grasping the purse with a hand.
Never load your arms with so many purchases that it becomes difficult to see, walk, or safely carry the packages. Using both hands to carry the load leaves you vulnerable to falls, shoves, grabs, or purse-snatching with packages scattered on the ground as the culprit makes their escape. Don’t hesitate to ask the store to make a delivery or store your packages until you can safely retrieve them.
If you have any concerns about walking to your car with or without packages, ask a store security person to accompany you. Better to feel foolish than to lose hundreds of dollars of merchandise.
The holidays are a lot more joyous when everyone is healthy and safe.
Protect your data, purchases, wallet, and personal health. The last place you want to find yourself is the hospital or police station.
Most important, spend less money on the holidays and more time with your loved ones. Before spending a dime, create a holiday budget and stick to it. Don’t fall into the marketers’ trap of thinking your spending reflects your love for the recipients. I have truly found that the less I spend on gifts, the more I can enjoy being with my family and friends and the lower my holiday stress is overall.