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Black Friday tips to stay safe and avoid scams while shopping online | Science & Tech News

The threat of fraud and cyber scams is a 365-days-a-year problem when it comes to online shopping.

But just as the rate at which retailers hit you with promo emails scales up at this time of year, so too does the risk of falling foul of criminals trying to access your bank account.

According to the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), shoppers lost more than £10m to cyber criminals over last year’s festive shopping period.

With Black Friday sales under way and Christmas on the horizon, Sky News enlisted some cybersecurity experts to offer advice on how best to stay safe and avoid scams this year.

Spotting a dodgy email

A favourite tactic of fraudsters is to draw you in with an email that looks remarkably legitimate, seemingly offering an exclusive deal at one of your favoured retailers.

It is, as Mike McLellan of Secureworks puts it, a “classic scenario we’d expect to see around Black Friday”.

An important thing to look out for is the domain name of the sender’s email address – is it a close match, but with something slightly off? Think, for example.

“On smartphones, that kind of detail is usually hidden,” advises Mr McLellan. “So tap on it and check where the email has come from.”

You should also keep an eye out for misspellings and odd formatting.

However, the NCSC has warned that criminals are likely to use increasingly accessible AI tools to produce even more convincing scam emails, websites, and adverts than usual.

If you’re at all unsure, it’s good practice to go to the website directly, rather than click on any links in the email.

Fake websites

Some scams may direct you to a retailer’s login page to enter your account information.

It could look perfectly normal, and you go ahead and pop in your username and password, while in the background, criminals capture that information and use it themselves.

Chris Bluvshtein, of VPNOverview, says: “Every website should have a valid security certificate, and you can tell by the little padlock icon next to the URL.

“If a website doesn’t have one of these, then don’t give your bank details or valuable information.”

These can be some of the hardest scams to notice yourself, but banks have become very good at alerting you to “unusual logins” and flagging any subsequent dodgy transactions.

“If you suspect something bad has happened, consider changing your password,” Mr McLellan says. “And checking your bank activity.”

Text message scams

Another classic of the Black Friday scam genre is a text message suggesting you have a parcel waiting with DHL, Royal Mail, or some other delivery provider.

“Quite often you will be expecting something when you get these texts – but again keep an eye out for anything that doesn’t look normal,” says Mr McLellan.

A good indicator that something is amiss is if the text asks you for payment and includes a link.

You should not click on these.

An example of a text message scam. Pic: Royal Mail
An example of a text message scam. Pic: Royal Mail

The rise of ‘Qishing’

An emerging threat over the past year is an extension of phishing using QR codes.

Secureworks has dubbed it “Qishing”, when criminals use them to direct unsuspecting consumers to fraudulent websites that could steal their personal information.

Director of threat intelligence, Rafe Pilling, says: “We’re so used to seeing ‘scan this code’ to register, view a menu, order drinks or food to a table, or even enter competitions via the big screen at events stadiums, that consumers are thinking less about what they’re actually scanning.

“As the hype around holidays like Black Friday drives more urgency in consumer actions, we can expect to see more cyber criminals taking advantage with Qishing.”

Password managers and mobile payments

Modern smartphones and web browsers offer some useful baked-in features to help you stay safe.

Both have password managers and generators, which will come up with randomised options for you to lock your accounts and then store those behind a master password – or even biometrics like facial or fingerprint recognition.

Consider multifactor authentication as well, says Mr McLellan, for an extra layer of security.

Apple and Google Pay are good payment options if the retailer accepts them, as they protect your bank details.

“It’s best to use them instead of your debit card,” says Mr Bluvshtein.

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A customer sets up Face ID on his new iPhone X at the Apple Store Union Square on November 3, 2017, in San Francisco, California. Apple's flagship iPhone X hits stores around the world as the company predicts bumper sales despite the handset's eye-watering price tag, and celebrates a surge in profits. / AFP PHOTO / Elijah Nouvelage (Photo credit should read ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP via Getty Images)
Set up facial recognition on your phone and use it to protect your passwords

Avoid shopping on public networks

Black Friday promotions will often try to entice you with limited time deals, alerting you to them via an app notification, text message or email.

If one arrives while you’re out and about, it could be tempting to jump straight to it.

But shopping on public wi-fi networks, like those you might find at railway stations and on trains, is a bad idea, according to Mr Bluvshtein.

“Public wi-fi rarely has safety protocols such as passwords in place, and hackers can piggyback and steal unsecured banking details and sensitive information without you knowing,” he says.

What to do if you suspect you’ve been scammed

Even with the best will in the world, there may come a moment where you suspect the worst.

But try not to fret – there are steps you can take to limit the damage, or prevent any from occurring at all.

“Keep an eye on bank accounts and if you see anything unusual, get in touch with them,” says Mr McLellan.

“Banks have got very robust fraud controls these days – and that’s why it’s best to use credit cards if possible.

“If you think any of your online accounts have been compromised, change the password, and try not to reuse them across different retailers.

“We do recognise that some of these have a technical bar to them, but if nothing else, at least keep an eye on what’s happening and be vigilant about your online activity.”

Some military personnel forced to use food banks as inflation tips members of Armed Forces into crisis | UK News

Some military personnel and their families have been forced to use food banks as high inflation and rising costs tip members of the Armed Forces into crisis, Sky News can reveal.

An unofficial food bank even exists at a large Royal Air Force base in Lincolnshire, a defence source said.

The voluntary facility at RAF Coningsby – home to Typhoon fast jet squadrons – was set up by an aviator to collect food donations from servicemen and women to support civilians in their local community. But the source claimed it is now being used by RAF personnel too.

The food bank serves civilians in the local community. Pic: Destiny Outreach Coningsby
The food bank serves civilians in the local community. Pic: Destiny Outreach Coningsby

Internal RAF documents seen by Sky News – as well as interviews with military sources and charities – offer a sense of the wider impact of the cost of living crisis on defence, including:

• The need for a number of service personnel to choose between “food or fuel”, with some unable to afford to drive home from their base to see family

• One aviator, a single mother, was forced to go without a hot meal for four days because she had spent her last money on baby milk formula

• The volume of enquiries to a key charity from or on behalf of military personnel seeking financial support has more than doubled

• There are individuals who can no longer even afford the price of the subsidised meals at their mess

• A sense of “discontent” at covering for striking public sector workers on better pay deals when the Armed Forces are not permitted to take industrial action themselves

While the documents referred to the situation inside the RAF, a Royal Navy source and an Army source said personnel in their respective services were also experiencing hardships.

The Royal Navy source said the Ministry of Defence was trying to do more to help, such as support with childcare costs.

“But I suspect more needs to be done,” the source said.

“I’m hearing … stories of sailors unable to head home at weekends or over leave periods due to travel costs, also service personnel using food banks or contacting service charities for assistance with debt management.”

The RAF says the food bank was not set up for its personnel. Pic: Destiny Outreach Coningsby
The RAF says the food bank was not set up for its personnel. Pic: Destiny Outreach Coningsby

‘The food bank is popular’

The UK provides its Armed Forces with a range of specific benefits such as access to subsidised housing and meals – as well as fuel grants in a bid to keep the offer to join the Army, Navy and RAF attractive and to retain talent.

The support is also in recognition of the particular hardships and inconveniences of military life, and the fact that anyone who serves has to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Yet analysis of morale across the whole of the RAF last year by military chaplains revealed that a limited number of personnel were resorting to food banks in the local areas.

An anonymous quote in the report read: “The food bank is popular.”

This was qualified with a footnote that warned: “Food bank use is reported across a majority of units, but nowhere is yet reporting widespread use”.

It continued: “Single figures per unit of families utilising food banks is a working estimate.”

The airbases RAF Benson in South Oxfordshire and RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire “are reporting the highest use of food banks”, according to the footnote in the report, which was entitled Chaplaincy Analysis of Whole Force Morale 2022 and dated 12 January 2023.

Overall, the report found that cost of living pressures as well as failings with military accommodation – such as faulty heating and vermin – were the biggest factors “adversely impacting” morale.

Drop-off points for donations have been set up at RAF Coningsby. Pic: Destiny Outreach Coningsby
Drop-off points for donations have been set up at RAF Coningsby. Pic: Destiny Outreach Coningsby

Separately, the defence source with knowledge of the food bank at RAF Coningsby claimed that service personnel had been using the facility “extensively”.

Asked how they felt about this, the source said: “Incredibly angry and frustrated that we had got to the point where service personnel had to rely on charitable agencies just to exist.”

A junior non-commissioned officer established the food bank – which has its own Facebook page – a couple of years ago to support the local civilian community, having been involved with this kind of charitable activity while posted overseas in the US.

According to the Facebook page, the food bank is run by a Christian group called Destiny Outreach Coningsby. It says it offers support to people living in the town of Coningsby and the surrounding villages.

“With the cost of living rising, please look out for one another. If you are in need of a food parcel then please contact us,” it said.

An RAF spokesperson made clear that the food bank was not set up by the RAF for its personnel. However, the spokesperson did not offer a comment on the record about the claim that serving aviators were using the facility.

The Ministry of Defence is understood to regard any use of food banks by military personnel as a “private life matter” and does not have any data to support claims of their alleged use.

However, officials at RAF Coningsby raised concern with Air Command last July about “a worrying increase in personnel seeking assistance and support across all welfare pillars as a direct result of the cost of living crisis”.

The warning was contained in a report, dated 22 July 2022, which was entitled Cost of Living Crisis – RAF Coningsby.

It mentioned the establishment of the food bank.

The report drew on information gathered from the experiences of four focus groups of about 150 personnel and families over a one-week period.

It listed several trends, including “pers [personnel] struggling to afford fuel to drive to work; … pers unable to travel home each week and having to stay on unit, reducing morale and wellbeing; real concern for the winter months where electricity and gas costs will further exacerbate the current situation”.

The paper suggested ways the military could offer relief, such as by increasing the rate paid for fuel use. It noted: “Personnel were having to decide whether to buy food or fuel.”

Armed Forces pay ‘an annual gamble’

The documents and defence sources said pay is another factor creating pressure for the military, especially given soaring inflation.

The chaplaincy analysis talked about a “sense of looming discontent” as service personnel may be called upon to fill in for public sector workers who are striking for better wages.

The Armed Forces Pay Review Body, an independent entity, makes a recommendation each year to the government on any pay increases for the military, which the Ministry of Defence draws upon before making its announcement on what the amount will be.

This should happen before the start of each financial year but is often delayed and any increase in salary is backdated to the beginning of April.

The Ministry of Defence has yet to announce this year’s settlement, though the pay review body has submitted its recommendations and an announcement is expected soon.

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‘If my economic policies fail it’s on me’

One RAF aviator described the process as “an annual gamble on what we may or may not receive”.

Asked what message they had for the government, the aviator said: “Understand that your military deserves to be fairly compensated for the role they play in support of the UK on all fronts … We see through the words and false promises and expect to be treated fairly in return for our commitment to the crown and our country.”

Sarah Atherton MP, an Army veteran and member of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said the government should give the military a 10% pay rise in line with inflation.

“We’ve never had such an unstable global security situation, and we need our Armed Forces to protect us when we want them to protect us,” she told Sky News in an interview.

“We need to make sure they are valued and they feel valued.”

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Do we have an inflation problem?

Stepping in to fill the void are military charities like the RAF Benevolent Fund.

It said enquiries about financial assistance from or on behalf of serving personnel more than doubled last year to 539 cases compared with 2021.

In response to questions about the cost of living and food banks, the RAF spokesman said: The food bank at RAF Coningsby was not set up by the RAF for its personnel, and the RAF offers a range of support, such as welfare officers who can offer financial advice and access to fuel grants and hardship funds provided by the RAF, and supporting charities and associations.

“More widely, defence has created a comprehensive package of support that includes the biggest pay increase in 20 years, freezing daily food costs, providing accommodation subsidies and saving up to £3,400 per child per year by extending wraparound childcare – this is in addition to wider cost of living support provided by the government.”

Last financial year, the government awarded service personnel up to the rank of one-star a 3.75% pay rise – described as the biggest percentage uplift in two decades. But inflation has since rocketed, with consumer prices in February jumping 10.4% from a year earlier.