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5 Ways to Shop Safely and Smart This Holiday Season


Thanksgiving is behind us and by now, you’re probably already stressed about the upcoming holidays. For many, last year’s holiday spirit was likely a little subdued. Back then, with COVID-19 restrictions still in place and the vaccine months away, the holidays may have been spent separated from family members and loved ones.

But this year, things feel different. And while we haven’t seen a total return to normal, families are starting to reunite and spend time together again. For some, the holidays are more special than ever this year.

However, as you’re gearing up to load up Santa’s sleigh or send off presents to loved ones near and far, it’s important to do everything possible to make sure your gifts — and your bank accounts — are safe and sound. Between supply chain shortages, scammers, fake websites, and shipping slowdowns, there are plenty of obstacles in your way. But these tips may help you navigate your way to the perfect holiday season.

Choosing the Smartest (And Safest) Way to Pay

Before you start working your way down your list, take a minute to decide how you’re going to pay. There are couple of things to consider. Your choice will also depend on where you’re shopping and what your options are.

Credit Cards

If you have a credit card, that may be your best option for all your holiday shopping. Often times, your credit card will have more security and protection than your debit card. For instance, all Visa® Credit Cards offered by First Northern include ID Navigator powered by Norton LifeLock, whose benefits include dark web monitoring, data breach notifications, and account freezes. What’s more, FNCU Visa Credit Cards have a zero-liability policy to protect you against fraudulent transactions, and even offer optional debt protection to protect your credit rating down the line.

Even if you don’t have a First Northern Visa, chances are your credit card offers similar protections. Not only will this bring peace of mind when you’re shopping online, but your credit card may have cash back benefits and special offers on certain purchases — so your purchases will be protected while you earn rewards.

Be wary of the urge to apply for a store card for the tempting initial discount. If you already had a plan to get that store card after doing your research, this may be a great time. But if not, you’re likely better off using a credit card you already have to keep your credit rating intact.

Debit Cards

Debit cards, on the other hand, tend to offer less benefits, but allow you to only spend what you have on hand. And while you may like the idea of only strictly spending money you know you have — rather than buying on credit — using a credit card is often safer and just overall more beneficial.

If you’re worried about overspending with a credit card, simply keep close track of your purchases and deduct them from your holiday budget or checking account. Then, schedule a payment for that exact amount (or more!) before each bill is due.

Beware Deals That Are Too Good to Be True

With supply chains choked and prices skyrocketing everywhere, we’re all looking for a good deal. You may even find your go-to sites are out of stock of half the items on your list. And while it may be tempting to type those items into Google and grab the lowest price from the shopping tab, that lower cost may be more trouble than it’s worth.

More common than ever, fake retailers and websites often offer unbelievable prices on impossible-to-find products. And these finds are often just that — unbelievable and impossible. Scammers know that people get desperate when they can’t find what they’re looking for at any of their usual retailers — or not at the price they were expecting.

If you suspect a deal is too good to be true, you’re probably right. Take a few precautions before you take out your credit card.

If you’re shopping at a website from which you’ve never bought anything — or even heard of before! — do a couple quick searches about them. Try the company name + scam in your search. Check reviews from their customers. Also, look at the site name and URL. The web address may bespelled strangely or have an extra number, or the page itself will have grammatical and spelling errors throughout.

When you do decide to make a purchase, look at your options for payment. If the retailer is asking for a suspicious form of payment such as money order only, they are likely not legitimate.

A good rule of thumb is if it seems too good to be true, it likely is.

Shopping on sites like Amazon or Walmart? Read the customer reviews before buying something new. While their products might have a good overall rating, they may have a low number of reviews or several customer complaints. Avoid the hassle of dealing with a return by doing your research first.

Protect Yourself

As always, stay smart and alert with your finances. Scammers are working overtime during the holidays, knowing people are shopping in droves and desperate for deals. Keep your identity and money safe by comparing your account statement regularly with your holiday purchases to look for any errors or fraud.

It’s also important that you remember that First Northern and any other reputable financial institution will never call, text, or email to ask you for your password or any other sensitive information. If you do receive a call or email that seems fishy, don’t give any information you feel is sensitive. Don’t reply to their email or call the number that called you. Instead, visit the website and find the institution’s email and number from there. Call or email them directly and check.

To ensure that your financial institution can contact you regarding anything suspicious, be sure to also keep your phone number and email up to date on your account.

If you’re interested in getting more information about holiday scams or even year-round fraud, check out our security and fraud information.

Shop as Early as Possible

Despite our best intentions, every year many holiday shoppers find themselves down to the wire buying last minute gifts. In years past, we could make sure gifts arrived on time by paying for expedited shipping or picking up items in stores. However, due to supply chain issues and overloaded mail carriers, you might not be so lucky.

You can expect many of the items on your list to go out of stock frequently — especially as we get closer to the shopping deadline. Electronics in particular are suffering with the chip shortage. And if you do manage to grab even the hottest item while it’s in stock, you might risk it arriving too late if you wait too long to buy.

The simple solution? Make your purchases ASAP. If you know an item is especially popular, start looking for it now. If possible, consider doing in-store pick-up as well. With warehouses understaffed, shipping both to and from manufacturers, retailers overworked, and popular products short in supply, you can expect major slowdowns for the next few months. If you see an item on your list in stock and available for pickup, now’s the time to act.

Make Sure Your Packages Make It Under the Tree

You’ve made your list, you’ve checked it twice, you’ve found everything you need in stock — now you’re ready to buy. But before you check out, you may want to consider how your packages are getting to you.

What are your options for shipping? USPS, FedEx, and UPS are the big three, and you will often have your choice between multiple shipping services. If you’ve had better luck with one over the other, it may be worth the extra change to use them over a cheaper or even a free option. You are also likely familiar with what time certain delivery services come, but you may not want to rely on that as their loads get heavier and heavier.

If you live in an apartment with a less than secure spot for packages, you may also need to be aware of thieves. Last year, a shocking 43% of surveyed shoppers indicated that “porch pirates” had swiped packages from their mail rooms, front steps, and doorsteps. Thieves have stolen everything from 65” TVs to DVDs, taking advantage of easily swiped packages on porches, deliveries made when no one was home, and sometimes just (un)happy coincidence.

Worried that your packages might be at risk? Consider these options:

  • If possible, retrieve your packages the moment they arrive. Most major retailers offer alerts when deliveries have been fulfilled, and typically for major packages, couriers will knock or ring your doorbell.
  • Require a signature for valuable deliveries.
  • Send your package somewhere else. You can ship directly to the store, pick up at a distribution center, or even send it to a friend or family member whose mail is more secure. Amazon also offers delivery on certain days or the opportunity to pick up your package at a hub near you.
  • Have your packages delivered to somewhere out of sight on your property. For apartment-dwellers, that can mean requesting deliveries be dropped over fences or in gated areas. Even just having your deliveries placed behind a column or bench on your porch could deter thieves.
  • Install a security camera on your porch. If thieves know they’re being watched, they may avoid your home entirely.

Once you’ve determined where your package will be safest when delivered, also make sure to check out the estimated delivery date you’re being offered — then add a few days to it. As we get closer to the holidays, delivery estimates will be optimistic and relying on them may be the difference between a present arriving just in time or too late.

Shop Local!

In the past, big retailers like Amazon and Walmart were the go-to to make sure you got the best price, fast shipping, and all the items on your list. However, this year you might not be so lucky. And while it might be tempting to shop around online, you may run into scams or late-arriving gifts — as we mentioned above.

If you do find yourself shopping late for one of those last-minute additions to your list, try shopping local. Go Rockford has a list of local shops and boutiques and Evanston offers options and reasons to keep it local this holiday season as well. If you’re in this Chicagoland area, there are a ton of options just a quick walk or drive from home.  Not only will you be supporting your neighbors and friends by shopping local, but you’ll have your gifts in hand, ready to wrap at home.

What’s more, you might find some more meaningful and unique presents for your loved ones that you simply couldn’t find online.

Stay Smart This Holiday Season

The holidays are stressful enough. Many will be coordinating travel for the first time in over two years, buying gifts, decorating, planning a meal, and much more to make this a much brighter season than last year’s. And while we all are okay with going through a few harrowing days to make spirits bright, you can dial down the stress by not letting your shopping add to it.

Have a happy (and safe) holiday from everyone at First Northern Credit Union!

Sources: NY TimesCNetCNBCAARP

By Maria Carvell, Marketing Relations Supervisor

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