Defending against red flags starts with awareness. 

It’s now easier than ever for companies to target you directly, which means cybercriminals aren’t far behind. Advertisements are everywhere as we scroll through our feeds, and ads from would-be scammers can look suspiciously like the real thing. 

How can you determine which ads and links can be trusted? On top of that, millions of counterfeit items (handbags, jewelry, toys, etc.) are produced overseas and shipped to America, so how can you verify that you’re purchasing legitimate products? 

It takes a bit of awareness to know which ads, sites, and links can be trusted. We’ve heard the expression “if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is” but that’s not the only red flag when shopping online.  

Sophisticated Online Threats 

Most people think they’d never fall victim to online fraud or hacking. Yet online scammers can be very slick and prey on victims too busy to notice anything amiss. 

Consider a few modern-day online advertising threats: 

  • Bait-and-switch is a scam where a hacker buys online ad space on a website to lure shoppers to a fake site to steal sensitive data and/or inject a virus onto their device. 
  • Phishing is where a fraudulent seller will email you with links or attachments containing malware. Sometimes they try to trick you into revealing your personal information. According to Vade Security, phishing is the “gateway” to massive amounts of corporate data as well, with Microsoft, Paypal, and Netflix being the top brands for phishing attacks. It usually works by tricking people onto a fake page, which captures the email addresses and passwords entered. 
  • Cybersquatting and typosquatting are when cybercriminals register an internet domain meant to confuse consumers. For example, let’s say you receive an email claiming to be from Sports Authority, and within the email is a link to “” to download too-good-to-be-true coupons. The website is misspelled in a very tiny way — small enough that online shoppers could think it’s a link to the real sporting goods retailer. 

Red Flags 

When in doubt, try to shop from reputable e-retailers you already know and trust. Or shop local: you’re supporting your community and many small businesses are offering curbside pickup along with enhanced delivery options this holiday season. 

No matter how you’re making purchases, be on the lookout for a few more red flags:

  • WiFi hotspot scams. Scams abound on public wireless hotspots, and hackers know that most people probably aren’t using a virtual private network (VPN) to encrypt their online shopping and payment activities. Using a VPN like Ghostery Midnight can protect your devices on public WiFi networks.
  • Poor website design and spelling mistakes. If it seems that the website is poorly designed, or the products are phrased in a very unusual way, it could be a red flag that the site is being run from a different country. 
  • Text message scams. Especially around the holidays, there have been reports of text scams (i.e., claiming that someone compromised your credit card). Similar to the phishing examples above, a text message claiming to be from your bank might ask you to click the link. Don’t do this — the scammer wants to trick you into sharing access to your bank account details. Instead, either call the bank directly or go to your bank’s website to find out more information. 

In closing, it’s important to remember to not only stay ahead of these threats as outlined above, but to also use good old fashioned common sense. It’s the best defense we have! If it sounds “too good to be true” then it probably is.