By Matt Brownell
Projections for holiday retail spending are watched closely every year, with consumer spending during the biggest shopping season of the year seen as a strong indicator for consumer sentiment. While sales growth was sluggish in the wake of the recession, it has been getting stronger again in recent years: In 2011, holiday sales increased by 5.6% over the previous year, according to the National Retail Federation. This year, the organization projects a more modest sales growth of 4.1%.
But while overall holiday spending growth tends to bounce around in the low single digits, there's one thing you can count on year after year: Online shopping will grow like gangbusters. This year, as in past years, the NRF expects that online sales during the holiday season will see double-digit growth. Total online sales are projected to grow 12%, to as much as $96 billion. In a statement, NRF president Matthew Shay attributed the strong growth partly to online retailers improving their offerings on mobile devices.
Whether you're shopping on a laptop or a tablet, though, it's important to remember that buying online carries with it certain risks of identity theft and fraud. While the credit card you hand to the cashier can be secretly swiped in a skimming device to steal your info, it's a lot easier to pull off a similar theft online if you (and the retailer with which you do business) aren't taking proper precautions.
As we've pointed out in the past, there are certain warning signs that you're about to be scammed. If your favorite online retailer has had its email database pillaged by hackers, then they may try to send you an email purporting to be from that retailer that tries to link you to a phony site that will steal your information. That's why it's important to check both the sender's email address and the URL of the website to which it links, as well as heed any warnings about expired security certificates.
You should also be on the lookout for the various other online scams highlighted by McAfee's "12 Scams of Christmas", a list that includes everything from mobile malware to infected holiday screensavers. Mobile malware isn't much of a concern with iPhones and iPads, but malicious software is more prevalent on the Android operating system.
Finally, there is one tip that should prevent you from most types of financial fraud when you're shopping online: use a credit card instead of a debit card. As long as you catch the fraud in a timely manner, you'll be liable for at most $50 in damages on your credit card; if you use a debit card, on the other hand, you could lose up to $500, and you'll also have to deal with the money being gone from your account while the investigation is conducted.
Financial fraud is the last thing you want to get for Christmas, so use common sense and protect yourself.