Cyber Monday shoppers on high alert in light of data breaches

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Aaron Austin and Tonita Davidson are more cautious this year about how they spend their money when shopping.

Like many, they intend to spend as much on holiday gifts as they have in the past, but they are taking precautions when using debit and credit cards.

“I try not to let anyone use my card, and if I’m shopping online, I make sure the site is secure,” said Austin, 26, of Pitcairn, who uses anti-malware software and shops only on sites with which he is familiar. “If a deal doesn’t sound legitimate or make any sense, don’t go for it.”

Shopping on Cyber Monday — the day after the Thanksgiving weekend when shoppers typically do more buying online — is projected to increase by 15 percent from last year to $2.6 billion, according to Adobe Systems Inc., which sells e-commerce analysis software to top retailers.

Austin and Davidson are among those who say they changed their shopping habits because of recent data breaches. They use cash when possible, restrict the use of plastic to credit cards, check their accounts daily online, and use tips for safe online practices.

Hackers stole millions of customers’ email addresses and credit and debit card information from The Home Depot, Neiman Marcus, Michaels and other stores.

“I use a specific account only for online shopping,” said Austin, who was shopping with Davidson, 38, of Penn Hills in Monroeville Mall. He deposits just enough money to cover the purchases he intends to make.

Davidson, who shops online often, uses “retailers only where I have shopped in person.”

Experts say more consumers should be as cautious.

“Survey after survey tells us that consumers will change their shopping habits this season, but I anticipate increased growth in online shopping as well as in-store purchases with debit cards — two of the most risky moves consumers can make,” said Gary Miliefsky, CEO of SnoopWall, the mobile privacy company.

“We’re all creatures of habit, and we continue to do things the same way, over and over, despite the increased risk in having our identities stolen, either online or through a breach of a major retailer’s computer networks and databases,” he said.

Nearly 700 data breaches were reported this year through Nov. 25, a 26.1 percent increase from last year, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a San Diego nonprofit.

“We still use our cards,” said Courtney Dray, 29, of Plum while shopping at the mall with Rich Shook, 33, also of Plum.

Both said they take precautions they didn’t before.

“We take cash out of our checking accounts each pay, to use for as many purchases as possible,” Shook said. “If we run out of cash, we make a trip to the bank, or use cards as a last resort. We try to narrow (card use) down some.”

They decided to take action “because we shopped at both Target and Home Depot during those times,” Shook said. “We still shop at both, but we think about it.”

Retail sales overall from November to December are projected to increase 3.5 to 4.5 percent from last year, according to the National Retail Federation, Deloitte and FTI Consulting.

The National Retail Federation survey found that nearly 42 percent of people felt neutral when asked whether a data breach would affect their shopping and spending habits during the holiday season.

Miliefsky said consumers should use credit cards instead of debit cards because laws governing credit cards are written more in their favor.

“If you are a victim of identity theft, you are not responsible for the credit risk,” he said. With a debit card, it could take a bank 30 to 60 days to put money back in an account, even though federal law demands a 10-day investigation, he said.

Phil Costantini, 64, of Brookline said hacking incidents prompted him to stop using debit cards. When he uses a credit card, “I look at my account every day online.”

Costantini and his son Phil Jr., 40, of Charlotte were holiday shopping with their families.

“Sometimes I hesitate to go to Target because they got hit,” the younger Costantini said, “but the banks also got hit, too, so it doesn’t make a difference where you shop.”

Consumers are using revolving credit more than in the past, said Gus Faucher, senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh. Overall, consumer credit is up 3.3 percent this year, compared with a 0.9 percent increase in 2013.

“Overall, people are willing to use their credit cards,” Faucher said. Some people might hold back because of data breaches, “but I’m not seeing it in the data, and I haven’t seen anecdotal evidence that people are shying away from credit card use.”

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