Shop smart this holiday season

Story highlights

  • David Hirschmann: Criminals selling counterfeit goods are getting better at portraying themselves as legitimate retailers online
  • The smallest details can indicate flaws in the security of a transaction, Hirschmann says

David Hirschmann is the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Global Intellectual Property Center. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The winter holiday season is upon us, which means many things.

It means around-the-clock holiday music, blinking lights and decorations, and presents. If you've been good, lots of them.
David Hirschmann
Unfortunately, it is also the season for highly sophisticated crooks trying to pass off counterfeit goods as the real thing. Fortunately, there are things you can do to protect yourself.
    First, the good news. According to estimates from the National Retail Foundation, sales in November and December are expected to reach $630.5 billion, with as much as $105 billion coming from online sales, representing an increase of between 6% and 8% over last year's online sales figures.
    Given the amount of money at stake, we should not be too surprised consumers are increasingly running into criminals trying to dupe them online and sell them counterfeit merchandise, or worse, steal their identity or their credit information.
    In fact, as more Americans have gone online to purchase goods, so have criminals, and they have gotten quite good at portraying themselves as honest online retailers selling genuine products.
    From setting up fake websites to mimic ones from the brands consumers trust, to stealing images of genuine products to sell counterfeit goods, criminals have gotten smarter about selling counterfeit items online, and consumers need to catch up.
    And criminals are not just targeting luxury goods, sports apparel and electronics.
    This summer, the U.S. government arraigned several individuals accused of selling $78 million in counterfeit medicines, including cancer medications, to individuals who went online to buy their medications because they thought it would save them a few dollars.
    Sadly, this happens all too often. In fact, according to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, an audit of over 10,000 online pharmacies found that 97% "operate out of compliance with pharmacy laws and practice standards established in the United States, and many other developed countries, to protect public health."
    So how do you know for sure you are getting the trusted brand when buying online?
    To help keep consumers safe during this holiday season and all times of the year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Global Brand Council has put together a list of tips to follow to avoid falling victim to shady online retailers.
    For example, trust your instincts. If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.
    Do not purchase items from a website if you are uncomfortable with the security of the transaction. Make sure your payments are submitted via websites beginning with https:// (the "s" stands for secure) and look for a lock symbol at the bottom of your browser.
    Another easy tip to follow is to watch for missing sales tax charges if you reside in a state with a sales tax. Criminals selling illegal counterfeit goods often do not charge sales tax or report their sales to the appropriate authorities.
    The bottom line is this: shop smart.
    If legitimate businesses can make a product, there is a criminal somewhere who will try and fake it. You would not hand your credit card and financial information to just anyone in person, and you should not do so when buying online.
    A few simple steps to shop smart this holiday season will help ensure you can celebrate this holiday season with glee and will not be left holding the coal.
    Connect to the world with the CNN app for your new device. Learn how at cnn.com/apps.