Cyber Monday deals could open door to spam, scams

SAN FRANCISCO -- Monday will be one of the biggest online shopping days of the year, and also one of the most treacherous.

On Cyber Monday, the first Monday after Thanksgiving, consumers are expected to spend $821 million this year, up 12% from 2007, says Robert Williams, CEO of Conversive, a customer-service software company for online merchants. Monday may be the biggest day in a $44 billion online holiday shopping season, predicts Forrester Research.

But a wobbly economy, combined with a consumer thirst for too-good-to-be-true bargains, has motivated cybercrooks to unleash a torrent of spam, phishing scams and malicious software.

"The downturn will prompt more attempts by cybercrooks, because consumers — in their haste to save costs — may be more susceptible to scams," says Ori Eisen, founder of 41st Parameter, an Internet fraud detection and prevention service.

Threats are everywhere, PC security experts say, and Monday will bring a plague of them. Last year, phishing attacks soared 300% on Thanksgiving, compared with the previous few days, and this year is expected to be worse, computer-security firm Cyveillance says. It predicts cybercriminals this year will launch even more sophisticated phishing attacks on bargain-hunters, as well as on small businesses and credit unions that lack strong anti-virus software and firewalls.

Mainstream sites aren't completely safe, either, says Mike Van Bruinisse, president of computer-security firm Purewire. Some enterprising hackers have injected malicious software code into user comments and ads with links to popular e-commerce sites. "Stick to core content on those sites, and don't get distracted by other stuff," Van Bruinisse says.

Crooks also have targeted online buyers eschewing credit cards in this economy for debit cards, says Paul Henninger, director of fraud solutions at anti-fraud software maker Actimize. Debit card fraud is especially perilous because it gives hackers access to a bank account, he says.

Still, consumers can take simple steps to protect themselves. Security experts urge PC users to be wary of cut-rate deals from unfamiliar online merchants. They also suggest using multiple passwords when shopping and using the most up-to-date Web browsers and anti-virus software.

"Look, the Internet can be scary," says Michael Barrett, chief information security officer at PayPal, eBay's online payments unit. "But you can be pretty safe if you take precautionary measures."