If you're heading to the shopping mall on Black Friday, better beware — your money and your privacy will be under attack by both criminals and advertisers.
Fortunately, there are a few simple ways you can protect yourself and make sure your holiday season isn't ruined by incessant ads, identity theft or an emptied bank account.
1) Turn off your smartphone's Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS when you leave the house.
It's bad enough that most modern malls track which shops you go into by tracking your phone's unique wireless IDs. But criminals can also set up rogue Wi-Fi hotspots in shopping malls to gain access to the phones of passersby. Avoid both phenomena by switching off everything but the cellular signal.
2) Don't let your credit card leave your hand.
Underpaid cashiers can make an extra buck by "double-swiping" a customer's card to steal the card number. The proliferation of customer-use point-of-sale terminals and of "chip" cards has reduced the frequency of this threat, but it still happens. If you must hand your card to a cashier, don't let it out of your sight.
3) Check your credit-card statements every few days during the holiday shopping season.
Point-of-sale terminals can be infected with card-number-stealing malware, and so can the databases of the companies that process all those charges. Criminals will want to use stolen numbers quickly, so any fraudulent charges will show up on your account within a few days, or even hours, of the theft.
Call the customer-service number on the back of your card to check the balance and recent transactions, or do so online (but make sure your computer's software is up to date first). If anything looks amiss, tell your card's issuer immediately.
4) Make sure that ATM isn't compromised.
Card "skimmers" glued onto ATMs are getting smaller and more sophisticated. See if the card-slot housing on the ATM wiggles when you tug it, or whether it looks different from the slots on other ATMs in the same vestibule. And don't ever use those stand-alone ATMs placed outside shops in public places — stick to bank-branch ATMs in dedicated vestibules.
5) Stay off the shopping-mall Wi-Fi network.
Public Wi-Fi networks are easy pickings for credit-card thieves and identity thieves, even if the networks ask you for a password. To stay safe, stick to your phone's cellular data plan or use a VPN service. Don't ever shop or bank online using a public Wi-Fi network.
6) Be very careful when responding to deal offers.
Criminals will try to lure to you malicious websites with email messages, online ads, social-media postings or even text messages promising fantastic deals.
If you're on a computer, hover your cursor over the links in the ads, emails, Facebook postings and tweets to see where they really lead, and don't click on anything that looks strange. If you're on a smartphone, don't click at all, especially not on a link in an unsolicited text message. Your best bet is to simply avoid embedded links and instead do a fresh search for the deal on the retailer's website.
7) Stay home.
You don't really want to deal with stampeding crowds, do you? Unless you're willing to show up at 4 a.m. for a crack at a heavily discounted TV, you'll find most of the same deals online. Of course, you'll have to read our guide to online shopping precautions first.