Safe Shopping Tips for the Holidays

The holiday shopping season is upon us.  Starting with Black Friday and running through Christmas, the next month will be the busiest shopping period of the year – as it always is.  Each year, online shopping has increased, due to convenience, availability, free shipping from many retailers.  This year, the trend will be even more significant, considering the unprecedented circumstances that continue to surround us with the global pandemic, driving more people to do much of their shopping online.  It also means cyber criminals will be even more dangerous than ever, trying to take advantage of people looking for great deals.

Be aware though, that not all deals are good ones – some are likely to be scams targeting unsuspecting shoppers during peak periods where many people lower their guard in an effort to save or get popular items.  As you do your online shopping, keep a few simple rules in mind to help protect you and your personal information.

Check out sellers – It’s worth doing some research on online retailers, especially ones you don’t know and haven’t used previously, to make sure they are legitimate.  Online and social media reviews can be a good source of information, since customers are typically very quick to post about poor experiences and fraudulent site.   You can also look up companies at the Better Business Bureau.  The BBB also has a scam tracker site where you can look up (or report) scams.  It’s currently showing more than 200,000 scams.  If you’re buying through P2P services, like eBay, make sure you look at the seller’s history, ratings, and feedback.

Hard to find items – Be aware of offers promoting hard to find items.  Scammers often target buyers by offering deals on hard to find items.  Be aware of this and be sure to do your research on retailers.  Though it’s not always the case, if items are sold out at popular retailers – including the brands own e-commerce site – it’s not very likely they are available from other sources.  Your best bet is to shop early to avoid missing out on these items and setting yourself up to fall for a scam.

Be cautious with links – You’re likely to get countless emails from retailers promoting sales and gift ideas.  Many will be legitimate retailers you’ve purchased from in the past but, it’s almost a certainty there will also be fake ones looking to steal your personal information and money.  Some of the emails or texts you receive about amazing offers may contain links to fake websites.  Follow safe practices by carefully inspecting or searching any URLs before clicking on them, looking for typos or poorly written emails, and keeping an eye out for fake sites with URLs that are close to legitimate brands.  Instead of clicking on email links, you may want to search for brands and get to their sites that way.  Sales and specials are usually available directly from the websites as well.  If not, it may be a scam.

Use credit cards – Whenever possible, pay with a credit card.  Most major credit card issuers provide online purchase protection, so your liability will be limited, if any.  Some banks are also extending the same protections to their debit cards, so you should check with your bank to understand your liability.  Using a credit card instead of a debit care also means your primary bank account won’t be compromised if your card information is stolen.

Online payment platforms – Online payment platforms, like PayPal, Google Pay, Apple Pay, and others are another alternative available at many retailers.  The benefit is you are still using your credit card, but because you’re authorizing payment through the third-party platforms, your payment information is never seen by sellers.

Use only secure sites – Always make sure you are shopping on secure sites, indicated by the small closed padlock icon next to the URL in your browser.  While the icon doesn’t guarantee the legitimacy of the seller or the security of their payment system or website, it does mean you have a secure connection to the site, reducing risk of your data being intercepted.

Protect your accounts – Most retailers will allows you to make purchases as guests.  If you don’t have to, don’t sign up for an account with every seller, especially those you aren’t likely to use repeatedly.  For those you do have accounts with, follow your normal best practices, including strong passwords and two-factor authentication to protect accounts.  2FA typically works by sending a confirmation code to your mobile device to confirm your identity.

Security software – Hopefully, you already have a good security solution installed on your home and mobile devices.  They can help protect you against cyber criminals by alerting you when you are trying to access an unsecure or potentially fraudulent site, in addition to all the other security features that help keep your information safe.  As a regular course of action, you should make sure your software is always up to date.

Following these guidelines can certainly help protect you as you do your holiday shopping, but they are good steps to follow all year long.  But, even if you are careful, there’s always a chance your information may be exposed or you may make a mistake.  If you think something has gone wrong and you may have been a victim or fraud or exposed your information, contact your bank immediately to alert them and block your accounts.

How to Avoid Job Scams

These are challenging times for everyone.  Most people have had to adjust to new work environments, and our personal and social activities have been largely non-existent for many months.  Unfortunately, many people have also found themselves laid off or furloughed as businesses have been forced to cut back staffing or close entirely.

If you’re in the job market, be aware that the increase in job seekers has also driven an increase in fake job postings that are often mixed in with legitimate offers.  Just as bad actors prey on unsuspecting victims through email and phone scams, they are also taking advantage of the increased unemployment rate to con people into giving up personal information and money.

That said, there are many good, legitimate job opportunities available, especially as businesses continue to adjust to this new environment and find a need for more personnel, and with many employers looking for seasonal help during the holidays.  As you look for a job, just be aware that the real jobs may be intermingled with fake offers.  Here are a few things to look for that can help keep you from falling victim to a job scam.

Fees – You may come across job offers claiming to have many customers lined up and all you need to do is pay a certification, training, or placement fee.  That’s, at best, suspicious and, most likely a scam.  Legitimate employers won’t ask you to pay for placement or training.  These offers will collect your fees and never actually turn into work.  That’s not say certain certifications aren’t helpful for some jobs, but those are things you should look into on your own, separately from your job search.

Financial information –  Be wary of prospective employers who ask for your financial details, like credit card numbers or bank accounts.  Certainly, you may need to provide bank routing information if you’re going to take advantage of direct deposits, but make sure you know who you’re giving the information to.  You may want to wait a few pay cycles and deal with physical paychecks, just to make sure everything is legitimate.  If your bank enables mobile deposits, you can easily get the funds into your account without having to find time to visit a branch.

Government jobs – Remember one simple fact:  all Federal government jobs are listed online.  If you get a solicitation for a “new” or “previously undisclosed” government job, don’t reply to it.  If you’re interested in a government job, check out availability directly and follow the steps to apply.

Interviews – With very few exceptions, be wary of anyone offering to hire you without an interview.  Legitimate employers will want to meet prospective employers.  If you are offered a job based on an email or messaging exchange, or an extremely short phone call, there’s a good chance it’s a scam.

Job requirements – Make sure you know the job requirements and that those requirements make sense for the job.  Scammers often try to minimize or simplify requirements to increase their rate of “success” and to limit questions that could expose them.  Ask specific questions about the job.  Most scammers will either stop engaging or will avoid the question by telling you not to worry about it and that they will train you.

Video interviews – It’s never a bad idea to suggest a video interview.  Being able to see your interviewer can provide visual clues as to whether they are authentic or not.  If they’re not willing to use video, there’s a good chance they aren’t offering a real job – especially in today’s environment where video has become the norm.

Contact information – As with phishing emails, check your correspondences for warning signs – especially email addresses.  Scammers often use email addresses that are similar to legitimate companies, but have slight differences.  Also verify phone numbers by looking them up online.

With all that in mind, realize there are plenty of real opportunities out there and your instinct will likely be correct.  If it seems questionable or too good to be true, it probably is.  All you need to do is be a little smarter than the scammers.  They are looking to con people – they aren’t in the hiring business.  Use that to your advantage as you look for a job.  Of course, if you think you may have been exposed to a scam and possibly given away any personal information, contact your bank to make sure your accounts haven’t been compromised.

How to Keep your Kids Safe Online

With the world having gone completely digital there’s very little we can’t do online and through our smartphones or tablets.  Without question, it adds a new level of convenience to our lives.  Our kids, too, are living much of their lives online as they interact with friends, do schoolwork, play games, stream content, and more online.  In many cases, in fact, it’s fair to say kids spend more time on their phones and laptops than their parents.

With that convenience, though, comes responsibility – responsibility to behave safely and appropriately in a digital society.  As parents, we have an inherent responsibility to protect our children, and how, that extends into the digital world.  It has to – there’s too much malicious activity and cyber crime that could impact your entire family.

So, the theory is, if your kids are old enough to be online, they are old enough to be taught how to do it safely.  Here are some tips for helping to keep your kids (and the rest of your family) safe in a digital world.

Set ground rules – Maybe the first thing to do is set ground rules for online activity.  However old your kids are, make sure they understand your expectations.  That might mean setting digital curfews in the evening, no phones at the dining table, limits on non-schoolwork usage, permission to download apps or games, and more.  Some devices and applications allow you to set limits on certain apps, which can help.  Mobile carriers also offer family safety apps that can help monitor and track usage.  As a parent, you shouldn’t feel bad about monitoring your children’s online activity – their friend lists, applications, search or chat history, and other data – to make sure they are building safe habits.

Security ­– Perhaps the most important thing for your kids to understand is security.  The moment they start interacting online, your kids will potentially be exposed to millions of cyber threats, which also put your home network, and all devices attached to it, at risk.  Make sure you install appropriate security software on each device and keep it updated, and be sure your kids understand they are not to disable or uninstall them.  It’s also best to enable multi-factor authentication for all apps that offer the option (most do these days), to make it harder for accounts to be hacked.  Finally, understand that many apps request access to data that isn’t needed for the apps to function.  Make sure you look at those permissions carefully and only allow access to information that is absolutely necessary.  You may want to require parental approval for downloading and installing any new apps, especially for younger children.

Passwords – Teach your kids to use the same safe password guidelines you do.  They should avoid using the same password on multiple sites; they should change passwords regularly and monitor accounts for fraudulent activity; and importantly, they should never share account information with others.

Privacy – Kids tend to document their lives through photo and video. Remind them to respect others’ privacy when posting and that they should only post photos or videos they don’t mind being in the public domain.  Also make sure automatic geo-tagging is turned off for photos and videos.  In fact, it’s a good idea to disable location access to all apps, then enable them for specific apps that need it, like tracking apps that help you keep tabs on their location.

Social media – Social media can be overwhelming, and many adults don’t even think before posting.  When your kids are old enough to have their own social media accounts, talk to them about using good judgment and common sense on these apps.  Remind them that once they post something, it’s impossible to take it back.  Also make sure they understand the risks of connecting with people they don’t know on social media.  Kids often see social media as a popularity contest – the more follower or likes, the better.  Teach them that’s not the case and that the safest policy is to only accept friend or follow requests from people they actually know.

Safe habits – Teach your kids about phishing scams and help them understand how to identify potentially malicious emails, text messages, pop-ups, emails, and links that are designed to get them to share personal information.  Educating your kids early will help them recognize potential threats early and develop safe digital habits.  If you get a phishing message, use it as a teaching moment by showing your kids and explaining to them why it’s suspicious and how to handle it.

File sharing – At some point, your kids are likely to start exchanging files with friends, and possibly even using P2P file sharing applications.  Make sure they understand there are risks with P2P networks, like potentially malicious code embedded in flies from unknown sources, which could your network and files to others.  There’s also the issue of downloading copyrighted content illegally.  If they need share files with others, make sure they are using legitimate software that has been properly installed with appropriate settings to ensure no private information is shared.  Also make sure any files they receive from others are scanned by their security software before use.

At some point, it becomes impossible to keep children from becoming part of the digital society, especially once they start needing to access online tools for school.  The fact is, many of the applications websites, and services available today provide unique social and educational opportunities that can be helpful.  Your goal should be to help your children understand the risks and develop habits that will reduce those risks while allowing them to be part of the online world.  While there are no guarantees, following these guidelines can help.

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What Are You Doing with Your Old Electronics?

By Lynn Viesti Berube

Most of us have gotten into the good habit or recycling our plastic, glass, cardboard, and other materials on a regular basis, largely because it’s fairly easy to do and the items are collected on a regular basis by cities and towns.  But what about all the old electronics that are collecting dust in our homes?

There are more than 260 million smartphone users in the United States today.  That means 80% of the population is replacing their phones every few years – or more frequently for those who always want the latest and greatest.  Tablets, laptops, smart watches, fitness trackers, game consoles, and all sorts of other electronic devices also have fairly short replacement cycles.  Then there are other items, like printers, monitors, televisions, and other items, which eventually get replaced as well.  It all adds up to an awful lot of e-waste, which has increased by 20% globally over the past five years.  That figure is projected to grow by another 40% by the end of the decade.

The problem is that only about 17% of e-waste is documented and recycled or properly disposed of, which presents two problems.

First, these electronics contain many valuable raw materials that could be reused for new electronics or other items.  These include iron, gold, palladium, copper, and more, all of which have to be mined and processed to build new components.  Reducing the demand for new materials can save resources and money and reduce pollution.

The second issue is that, if not recycled, many of these old electronics end up in landfills, where hazardous chemicals can seep into and contaminate soil and water in surrounding areas, creating long-term health risks.  In addition, much of our waste is eventually transported to and dumped in Third World countries, who have little understanding of its potential impact.

There’s also the simple problem that some items aren’t disposed of at all and simply create clutter in homes.

There’s simple answer – recycling.

The Milford Bank is again hosting its Shred & Recycle Day, Saturday, October 10th, at its 295 Boston Post Rd, Milford, location.  The annual event allows residents of Milford and surrounding towns to get rid of not only old electronics, but also old documents that need to be shredded.

The event will be held from 9:00am-1:00pm, or until the two shred trucks are filled.  Electronic recycling is free to the general public, and document shredding is free for The Milford Bank’s customers (others may also take advantage of the service for a small $5 per box fee, all of which will be donated to Milford Food 2 Kids).  There is a three-box limit per household or business on paper, and no limit on electronics.

The Milford Bank is working with AFA Electronic Recyclers, a state-recognized e-recycling facility for electronic waste.  AFA addresses one of the concerns some people have around data security with its process, which includes completely dismantling and storage devices and shredding the data platters where the data is actually stored.  This provides data security for customers, while allowing all other components to be recycled for parts and raw materials.

If you have old electronics lying around the house, this is your chance to not only do a little fall cleaning, but do you share for the environment as well.  Take some time to collect those old items and dispose of the properly at The Milford Bank’s Shred & Recycle Day, Saturday, October 10th.

How to Protect Yourself from Work-at-Home Scams

By Matt Kelly

Working from home has been an emerging trend for a few years, as technology has enabled an increasing number of jobs to be completed from anywhere. This year, in particular, though, has seen a massive increase in the number of people working from home. Some are temporary changes, but many companies have seen the benefits of enabling remote working and have already announced long-term of even permanent expansions of their previous WFH policies.

On the surface, it’s a great opportunity for many people who may be looking for primary or secondary income sources, or who have kids or elderly parents at home who need regular attention. It’s also a way for people to save a little more by avoiding commuting costs – including fuel, wear and tear on vehicles, and eating out regularly.

But, as working from home has become more common – a trend most experts agree is likely to continue – scam artists have recognized that many people are looking for opportunities, whether they have lost their jobs, are looking for a supplemental source of income, or need a remote work opportunity to support children in distance learning environments.

They are preying on the uncertainty and stress that the pandemic has created, hoping to trap people into their scams. The only way to avoid it is to stay informed, be smart, and know what to look for, and look for red flags. These include:

• No skills or experience required – While this may not be the case 100% of the time, most jobs require at least some limited experience or at least have some qualifications (even entry-level jobs).
• High pay rate for limited effort – As the saying goes, you can’t get something for nothing. If it feels like a job offers a higher pay than the work that’s being required, it’s likely to be a scam.
• High return guarantees – Look out for “business opportunities” or “partnerships” that claim to pay off quickly, or that are dependent on your ability to recruit others. These are most likely pyramid schemes.
• Up-front payments – Be wary of any company asking you to pay in advance for training, certifications, manuals, or other materials. You may spend the money and never hear from the company again.
• Pressure to sign – Be wary of offers that try to pressure you to sign up or onboard quickly, including on-the-spot offers without any meeting (whether in-person or virtual). Most legitimate companies will want to speak with prospects before hiring.
• Bank details – Look out for companies asking for your banking information right away. Unless you are 100% certain you have been hired for a real company, you could put your financial information at risk. If you have any concerns, you can always ask your bank’s experts whether something seems off.
• Respected source – Just because you see an offer in your daily newspaper or in a popular job site, don’t assume the opportunity is legitimate. It could still be a scam, and if you see something that doesn’t appear quite right, check with the paper or site and report your concerns.
• Testimonials – Fake offers can easily generate many false references that leverage emotional response to difficult or relatable scenarios (e.g., single moms, COVID-19 job loss, etc.), to get people to buy into their scams.

That said, there are plenty of legitimate work-from-home opportunities out there, and there are steps you can take to verify them before going further.

• Do your homework – Check out the company with state or local agencies, and the Better Business Bureau to see whether the company has a good reputation. Also make sure the company is following the FTC’s Business Opportunity Rule, which requires employers to disclose information about opportunities they are promoting, including references to back up their earning claims. Also check out the company and its management through online resources to see their histories and reputation.
• Ask detailed questions – Make sure you get specific details about how you will be paid, what your compensation structure will look like (salaried, commission-based, combination of the two), who will pay you, how soon will payments begin, are there any costs to the offer and, if so, how will those be paid and what will you get for it?
• Be smart – The moment you feel something isn’t quite right, don’t hesitate to pause the conversation to do more homework, or even just reject the company outright. Any legitimate company will understand your desire to think things over and generally do your research. In fact, some will even view it as a positive trait.
• Job sites – While it’s not foolproof, there are several reputable job sites that specialize in online or work-from-home opportunities and perform pre-screenings on their postings and companies.

Scammers are smart, and they know how to prey on people’s emotions, especially when it comes to financial issues. Your best defense is knowledge and common sense when looking for a job. In addition to these other guidelines, following one simple rule can help protect you and your personal information: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”