This year is the 15th anniversary of “Cyber Monday,”  which began in 2005 as a marketing gimmick from Back then it was relatively common to have broadband at work but not at home, so people shopped at the office using the boss’s computer network. Cyber Monday was an extension of sorts from that much older tradition, “Black

Larry Magid

Friday,” when people crowded into stores in search of bargains.

This year, I’m sure some people will seek deals from brick and mortar shops, but, for many, Cyber Monday and Black Friday are merging, because we’re doing most if not all of our shopping online. Between now and the end of the year, we can expect record numbers of people to shop online though, given the levels of unemployment and economic uncertainty, it’s not clear how much we will collectively spend.

Relative risk

In relative terms, online shopping is pretty safe. Sure, there are risks, but there are risks with all forms of shopping.  As I could have said in any year, you can get into a fender bender on the way to the store or be pickpocketed at the mall.  But this year, there is an added risk.  Congregating anywhere, including at stores, increases your risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. Wearing a mask reduces and social distancing significantly reduces the risk, but not completely.

All things considered, I think it’s safer to shop online this year than it is to go to a store. Still, there are things that can go wrong when you shop online.

One risk when shopping online is to be sure you’re dealing with a legitimate merchant who is not only honest but also exercising a reasonable amount of security. One option is dealing with merchants you know. But even then, there’s no guarantee against a data breach.

Getting an unpleasant surprise

Unlike brick and mortar stores, you can’t see and touch the merchandise you see on an app or on the web. That’s not a big deal if you already know the product, but if it’s something you haven’t purchased before, you might be in for a surprise once you open the package.  Your best bet is to only buy from sites with good return policies. In many cases, sites will allow people to return products until the end of January rather than the typical 30-day policies.  See what their return shipping policies are. Some are free, some require you to prepay the freight or postage and others will deduct the return shipping from your refund.  Some make it free if there’s a defect in the product but otherwise charge. Amazon has a combination of policies, including “free returns” on some merchandise but not on others.  Some gifts come with return labels but sometimes the return has to be initiated by the person who bought it.

Having a good return policy is especially important when buying clothes that may not fit right or look exactly like they do on a screen. I remember buying a “blue” shirt but the shade of blue I saw on the screen was way different than what I saw when I unpacked it, which may have had something to do with the variation in computer and smartphone displays.

How to reduce risk

Whenever possible, shop from a merchant you know and trust. That could be a big name company like Amazon, Target, Macy’s or Walmart, but it could also be a mom and pop store in your neighborhood.  Since the pandemic, many local merchants are allowing you to order online and pickup either inside the store or at curbside. Even if they don’t have a website, you might be able to order over the phone and arrange for them to put it in the back of your vehicle, as I typically do.

If you’re not sure about an online merchant, do a web search to see what folks are saying. You can type the name of the merchant and the word “scam” to see if people are accusing them of anything, but take those results with a grain of salt. It’s extremely common for even the most reputable companies to get some negative comments. Look for a preponderance of comments or ones from highly reputable sources like a Better Business Bureau or a trusted editorial site. I sometimes look at Yelp and other sites where people weigh-in. Again, I look for a trend among multiple reviews, not just a small number of highly negative or highly positive reviews.


  • See if there are any reviews online or in the app store. Do consider the source of the review. Sites run by  journalists from reputable trade magazines or news organizations are usually honest, but there are also review sites that are run by shills, who are paid to praise products.
  • If you’re downloading an app or land on a site, make sure it’s from the actual merchant and not someone using their name.
  • On the web, look for a https in the browser’s address bar. The “s” stands for secure, indicating that the information is encrypted. It doesn’t certify that the site is legitimate or guarantee absolute security, but it’s important.
  • Use secure and unique passwords that you change periodically. For more on this, visit
  • Use a credit card if possible or, if not, use a debit card, PayPal or some other payment service that offers fraud protection. Credit cards are best because if you do dispute a charge, the card issuer will remove it from the bill while it is being investigated. With other payment forms, you may be out-of-pocket immediately until the issue is resolved in your favor.

These days most people will shop from home but if you are out, avoid shopping from public WiFi. If you must shop from a public WiFi network, be sure you know who operates that network. Don’t log on to ones that aren’t run by — for example –the store you’re in. If you need to go online away from home, it’s safer to use your phone’s cellular connection than to log on to an unknown WiFi network.

Here’s to a safe and happy holiday season.

Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.