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COVID-19, Online Shopping and Payments
08 Jun 2020
The first signs of behavioural changes related to shopping in Malta started on the 25th February, even before the first COVID-19 case has been reported in our islands.  These first evident changes were not related to online shopping.  Shoppers starting rushing and queuing up at supermarkets, emptying shelves in the process.  This was just the beginning.

People adapt themselves.  In less than two months down the line, we could see more shoppers moving towards online shopping and payments.  The partial lockdown and the caution taken by many shoppers contributed to this.  The world experienced a significant increase in online shopping, especially in sectors related to essentials such as groceries.  Businesses started adapting themselves to provide online services.  They had to, if they wanted to survive.  More delivery service companies formed up as more consumers started ordering their food from the traditional-turned-online restaurant.  New mobile applications emerged to cater for a new demand.  Banks pushed up their marketing of online payment applications and more customers signed up to these services.  Sales persons became more aware of contactless payments and their advantages.

Consumers who, previous to the outbreak, shied away from online shopping, are now learning and adapting themselves.  This is good news in itself.  However, the convenience of online shopping does not come without risks.   Learning how to shop online is the first step, followed by understanding these risks and mitigating them.

Computers, laptops, iPads, mobile phones and other devices must have adequate malware protection software installed whilst making sure to maintain this protection by installing the necessary updates.  Different types of malware exist – from those that simply steal your email address and send you unsolicited correspondence to malware which steals your identity, including your card numbers and account credentials (such as your email and online shop account) to shop online using your card, effectively embezzling your money.

Emails should be handled cautiously.  Treat every email you receive as if you do not know the sender, even if you do.  Having malware protection software installed does not protect your email address because it may be stolen from devices belonging to persons with whom you communicate.  Cyber criminals tend to send emails impersonating email addresses you are familiar with, for example, by replacing a letter ‘O’ with a zero ‘0’ to mislead you.  Again, these cyber criminals may hack an email account of an acquaintance of yours and send you an email using the hacked account.  People and companies get robbed with such techniques on a daily basis, with amounts varying from a few hundreds to millions of euro.

Passwords can be a big headache if you hold several accounts.  We have passwords for our email accounts, online shops, food delivery companies, accommodation and holiday related applications, banking applications and so on.  Use randomly generated passwords and different passwords for each application and do not use passwords that exist in dictionaries or that have a meaning, such as names or mobile numbers.  You do not use the same key to access your house and your summer residence.  If you do so, and your key is lost or stolen, you will be robbed from both.  Same principle here.  A hacker may use a simple computer program which scans a dictionary until a match is found.  One might wonder how our brain can remember all those randomly generated passwords without writing them down somewhere.  Instead of writing them down, consider a password safe software, which is very easy to use.  Once you install a password safe, you only need to remember one password.  The safe stores the other passwords securely for you.  Most of these safe stores generate random passwords depending on the policy that you can set.  

Vishing is another means used by cyber criminals.  Using this method, cyber criminals call on your phone impersonating your bank or other companies and ask for your username and passwords.  Never, ever, for any reason, divulge such information.  Serious companies never ask for passwords over the phone.  If they do, stay away from them because your data is not safe.  Do not be a victim.

Cyber criminals have been taking advantage of the COVID-19 situation and there has been an increase in malicious attempts.  As new shoppers take up online services, they must become aware of and understand the associated risks, the possibility of becoming a victim and the consequences if that materialises.

Online shopping and payments are here to stay, do make use of them, but be aware and stay safe.  Both health wise and financially! 

This article was published on the Sunday Times of Malta on 07/06/2020.  Written by Aldo Mamo, B.Sc. (Hons) Computing & Information Systems (London) who is a seasoned banker with over 25 years of experience in Banking and Information Technology, an Information Technology trainer and Senior Manager at Bank of Valletta’s Information Security and Data Protection Unit.

Any views, assumptions or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Issued by Bank of Valletta p.l.c., 58, Triq San Żakkarija, Il-Belt Valletta VLT 1130. Bank of Valletta p.l.c. is a public limited company regulated by the MFSA and is licensed to carry out the business of banking in terms of the Banking Act (Cap. 371 of the Laws of Malta).
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Bank of Valletta p.l.c. is a public limited company regulated by the MFSA and is licensed to carry out the business of banking and investment services in terms of the Banking Act (Cap. 371 of the Laws of Malta) and the Investment Services Act (Cap.370. of the Laws of Malta).