By John Palmeri, Branch Manager, OnPoint Community Credit Union Hawthorne Branch

As the holiday season approaches and the spirit of holiday giving takes hold, it’s a good time to take a few simple steps to protect against cyber-grinches. According to recent studies published by the Pew Research Center, 51% of US adults bank online, and eight in ten Americans are online shoppers. Online shopping and banking is on the rise, as is online fraud as cyber criminals target shoppers.

You can reduce your risk of being targeted by online criminals by shopping in-person at neighborhood retailers and supporting local merchants. Some amount of online shopping seems unavoidable and if you find yourself needing to make that last-minute purchase from an online retailer, these tips can help keep your information safe and secure.

The Department of Homeland Security Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) has identified three common ways attackers target online shoppers:

Using fake websites and emails to get shoppers to share account information – Attackers pose as legitimate retailers, or pretend to be a charity, especially during the holidays or after a natural disaster.

Intercepting insecure transactions – If a retailer does not use encryption, attackers may be able to intercept your information during a transaction.

Targeting vulnerable computers – If your computer is not protected, it is vulnerable to being accessed by an attacker who may be able to view your information.

There are simple precautions an online shopper can take to help protect against attackers and fraud. Here are just a few:

Use a credit card in lieu of a debit card. If a fraudulent transaction takes place on your credit card, at least the funds won’t automatically be pulled from your checking account while you are settling the dispute. Protect yourself by only shopping on sites with HTTPS and a padlock icon to the left or right of the URL. The ‘s’ at the end of HTTPS stands for secure and ensures all communication between your browser and the web is encrypted.

Be proactive. Routinely check all of your financial statements and history for suspicious or questionable charges. Contact your financial institution immediately if you find unauthorized activity on your accounts.

• Don’t open attachments or click on URLs in unsolicited emails from vendors and people you don’t know. These may be phishing scams that contain links that will download malware on your computer or lure you into entering personal information. Be aware, the email may even appear to be from someone you know but look or sound suspicious.

Use strong passwords, and do not use the same passwords for multiple websites. Consider increasing the complexity of passwords or use phrases, and regularly change passwords for added security.

• Most importantly: Think before you click. If something seems off, it likely will require a little investigation before clicking the link or message. Resist the urge to respond to enticing subject lines that sound too good to be true. Stay alert and take protective measures to ensure online safety and security.

Two reputable sources for information on protecting your accounts, information and identity from online attackers include: The National Cyber Security Alliance at StaySafeOnline.org and the Department of Homeland Security Cyber Emergency Readiness Team at US-Cert.gov.

The holiday shopping season is an opportunity to be reminded and to encourage our friends and family members to protect against cyber criminals and strengthen the security of information and accounts.