TSTC cybersecurity program: Protect your digital identity 

Using passwords on routers and wireless networks is one way that consumers can protect themselves when shopping online. (Photo: Adobe free usage photo)

As Rio Grande Valley residents adapt to an uncertain future of self-isolation and businesses temporarily closing, online shopping is becoming the way for consumers to acquire what they want.

“Due to the COVID-19 situation around the world, we have to adapt and become flexible to keep running our lives and careers,” said Cesar Ibarra, lead instructor in Texas State Technical College’s Cybersecurity program in Harlingen. “Businesses will run virtual private networks o secure the data transfer of consumers.”

For those people who are new to online shopping, they could be prime targets for cybercriminals.

“We have to be vigilant with our digital footprints, especially when shopping for our necessities,” Ibarra said.

Ibarra advises doing research on companies selling products online, creating phrases that contain special characters as passwords, and using virtual credit cards for online shopping.

“With identity theft, we have taken that issue as a normal item in our lives, but the worst is the digital identity theft where they will create a social media profile using your picture and your name to complete a transaction,” Ibarra said. “At the end, it’s your digital identity being used to create and complete an illegal transaction.”

Ibarra said to create a work order or call internet providers directly to address problems. He said providers will never call you first.

The Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently sent warning letters to seven companies selling essential oils, teas and other products to prevent or treat COVID-19, according to an FTC blog written by Colleen Tressler, an agency consumer education specialist.

“Both agencies will continue to monitor social media, online marketplaces and incoming complaints to help ensure that the companies do not continue to market fraudulent products under a different name or on another website,” Tressler said.

In 2018, the Better Business Bureau received more than 28,000 complaints and at least 10,000 scam reports nationwide related to online shopping.

Dolores Salinas, president of the Better Business Bureau’s South Texas office in Weslaco, said price gouging has been a problem for products like hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

“They (consumers) pay it because they are scared,” Salinas said. “If they are buying that item, they think they are not going to have it and be able to get it later. We are putting out there to the public that if you fall into traps and pay a large amount of money, you are propagating the scam.”

The bureau recommends that consumers do online research before making purchases through social media and websites. The agency advises consumers to research sellers, use a credit card for secure online payments, take time to think about purchases and keep documentation of all orders.

For more information on Texas State Technical College, go to tstc.edu.