Shopping and Shipping 2020 Style

If you ask us to pick one word to define the 2020 holiday shopping season, we’d say “paradoxical.” With the pressure on to buy early and ship early, there’s no doubt you need to move fast. But at the same time, you should take a step back and carefully consider everything you do.

First, why the rush? Why do you need to shop early? Two reasons come to mind: 1.) You want to make sure you can get the gifts you want, and 2.) you want to make sure it can be delivered on time.

Let’s look at that second point first. It’s no secret that our major delivery services are already overtaxed. Many retailers contract with major shippers, such as UPS and FedEx, to deliver a specific number of packages during the season. They have already told the retailers they may not be able to pick up everything that’s on the loading dock every day, so it’s likely not all packages from the retailers will be delivered on schedule. We’ve seen major delays all year long because of the pandemic, and now we’re entering a time of traditionally high shipping volume. We need to take this into account if we’re ordering products that will be sent directly to the recipient.

In a sense, the retailers are competing with anyone who sends a package for that increasingly precious space on the trucks. There will be many people who will want to buy a number of items and put them in a single box to send to a family member or friend. If you’re planning on doing that this year, it’s even more reason to shop early – just so you can ship early. UPS and FedEx, which normally boast a 97 percent on-time delivery success rate, and the Postal Service, which normally boasts a 95 percent success rate, have all moved up their deadlines for the holidays.

And in the chaotic rush to send packages on time and ensure they’re received, here’s a scam tactic to look out for -fake shipping notices. We referred to it in our email, and it’s worth repeating. Scammers can send notices with fake links for tracking information. If you receive a notice, look carefully at the email address it comes from. Scammers are really good at making them look real, and it’s easy to copy and paste a logo. The better idea – if you want someone to know you sent something – is to send them the tracking info directly without any links to a website. The recipient can go to the website from a browser and add the tracking info.

Now for the products.

Don’t be so bargain-obsessed that you get sucked into a trap. There are too many to describe out there. If you see a price that’s too good to be true, be wary. This is the time of year that fake stores pop up online, including those that claim to be Amazon stores. When you do your comparison shopping, look at more than just the price. Look into the retailer. Sellers get ratings and comments just like products, and you should go to independent rating sites for retailers just like you do for products.

Make sure that phone numbers and addresses on store sites are genuine, so you can contact the seller in case of problems. Also take a second look at URLs and app names. Misplaced or transposed letters are a scam giveaway but easy to miss. Finally, carefully read delivery, exchange, refund and privacy policies. If they are vague or nonexistent, take your business elsewhere.

If you see a really good price, make sure it’s for a current model of a product – or understand you’re getting a clearance price on an older, lesser or discontinued model. That can be especially true with electronics.

Once you’re satisfied, you’re buying a legit product from a legit seller, use a credit card to pay for it – and make sure the site has the proper security. That can be tough because it’s easy for a scammer to use a fake https:// in the URL and just as easy to throw up any kind of graphic. You can always pick up the phone to complete an order. Don’t pay by wire transfer, money order or gift card. You won’t have any way to effectively dispute any charges if you’re dissatisfied with the purchase or have been duped. Sellers that demand these types of payments are generally scammers.

If you’re giving a gift to someone in your household or nearby, ordering online and picking it up at the store may solve a number of potential problems. You’ll be able to verify you got what you ordered, and you won’t need to worry about shipping delays. We’ve been using curbside pickup more and more and highly recommend it if it’s a feasible option.

We’re here to help in many ways during this holiday season. If you think you may have accidentally compromised your online security in any way, call us – 973-433-6676 – immediately. If you need help with setting up electronic gifts, email us.

What I’ll Miss About CES

I used to look forward to CES, the Consumer Electronics Show held every January in Las Vegas. Like everything else in town, it was glittery, glitzy and way over the top. But I always focused on finding the tech experts to learn more about how products worked. Now, it’s all changed. This year’s show starts Jan. 11, totally online, a reflection of where life is headed as the pandemic continues.

Being a techie, I loved talking to the engineers at the exhibits of product manufacturers. Whether it was for a product that caught my interest or one that many of my clients use, the engineers could answer my questions or explain the key areas that made a product work. They told me where I could unlock more capabilities and where I could stumble into a deep, dark hole.

You didn’t have to be a techie to get into the show. There was always something to wow anybody who attended, and there were neat toys that companies were giving away. Last year, I registered to get a flood detector that a company named Orbit introduced. It’s a good concept. It has Wi-Fi enabled sensors that you can put on the floor in a place that might flood, such as near a water pipe, sink, toilet or washing machine. It has an app that you install on your smartphone, and it warns you when the sensor detects water.

My friend, who attended the show with me, registered for one, too. They said they’d ship them; that’s what everyone says. After a while, we forgot about them. But last month, we got FedEx notices, and we could see that they were legitimately from Orbit. My system is on my basement floor, where, fortunately, it’s been silent.

But for all its glitter and glitz, CES is a show of concepts more than readily available products. Last year, as you may recall, healthcare was the major focus. If you had wristwatches stretching from your wrist to your shoulder, they would all contain features and apps that you couldn’t condense to just a few units. There were that many.

Flexible telephones, such as the one Samsung introduced, were not available until later, and the same was true of really large, really lightweight TVs with 8K resolution. Very few of them are on the market, and there is hardly any content I can think of that you can view with 8K resolution. Even 4K resolution is not universal – nor is it compelling technology for many.

I may go to the online CES, but it’s not the same. If you’re wandering around virtually, I’m sure there will be links to product manufacturers’ websites. But if you’re looking for information about the types of products you might buy, you can go directly to the websites. And if you want to actually see and touch the real thing, you might consider heading off to Best Buy.

If you’re looking for a TV, for example, you can get side-by-side comparisons by looking at multiple brand names, screen sizes and levels of technology. You can see if a specific size will fit in the room where you’ll watch it. You can do the same with any appliance and any type of smart home device you want to install. Seeing a product in person gives you a different perspective, and even with minimal sales staff, you can find somebody in a store who can answer some of your basic questions better than with most online chat services.

A trip to the store can also help us help you better with buying and configuring TVs, home electronics and smart home devices. You’ll have a better idea of what you want or need to buy and where to install it, and we’ll be better able to answer questions about what can work better and what’s possible to meet your expectations. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us. We can review product specs to help you make a good selection and provide whatever installation and configuration help you might need.

Finding and Thwarting Scammers

We helped a client recently resolve a personal financial issue that involved online banking and credit cards. The story illustrates some of the dangers we face in our online world. We can’t run away or hide from those dangers.

Those of us with aging parents face a gut-wrenching dilemma. Without getting involved in anybody’s specific family dynamics, we want our elderly parents to remain independent (as much as they want to be independent), but we also know they are more vulnerable to scams because they tend to be more trusting. Their vulnerability becomes even greater as they use technology more.

This story started with a credit card issued by BP, the gasoline retailer, and money that started to disappear from our client’s mother’s account through Synchrony, a bank that has close ties to Amazon and is used to finance merchant accounts. Our client manages the finances for his mother, who is in her 90s and lives in an assisted living facility. A gasoline credit card was odd because his mom stopped driving four years ago. That raised one red flag. Synchrony raised another.

We surmised that someone that someone was able to hack his mother’s bank account and then created a way to use her info get the credit card and create the transfer portal. In all likelihood, they found a piece of junk mail with the credit card offer and used it to do their dirty work. No email was involved. The credit card had a balance of $1,500, even though he had no knowledge of the card being used. So, he made a $200 payment and saw the balance transferred to what looked like a debit card. He also changed the bank account, but the connection was still there.

When our client wondered if his mom’s account had been hacked – and if any others had – we told him to investigate. He changed the bank account again and told us he was worried that his other accounts at the bank might be affected. In addition to his mother’s account, he had a personal account and one for his business. All were online. Fortunately, the scammers never got there.

To protect the money for the three accounts, our client created a sweep account in his wife’s name for personal use. This enabled him to clean out the accounts he was worried about on a daily basis to keep it safe.

At the same time, he had to send letters to the banks involved to cancel the credit card and close all the bogus accounts and open new accounts. None of this activity tied his mother’s taxpayer ID number to any of the accounts. Had there been a connection, the scammers could have done much more damage.

But it all started with the low-hanging fruit – that credit card offer that anyone could send in. The same problem can come from those “checks” you get in the mail that are really loans. Anyone can use them, and it can hurt you if your name is on the “check.”

Our advice: Pay as much attention to physical pieces of mail as you do to email. Don’t throw those offers in the trash or recycling bin. Shred them or cut them into tiny pieces that can’t be reassembled. At the same time, keep your online presence secure and check your financial info regularly to spot anything that looks out of order.

We can help you with a security audit and we can explain the technology behind various security measure you can take. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to set up a consultation and implement a program.