CARU's Tips for Parents: Safe and Efficient Holiday Shopping

Nov 24, 2020 by BBB National Programs


2020 has been a year unlike any other. In a time of great uncertainty, facing the holidays can feel be daunting. When it comes to holiday shopping, it is safe to say that many of us will be primarily shopping online this year. While some may miss perusing the shelves and popping into stores, there are certain perks to shopping online like avoiding the masses and taking advantage of online sales. 

To help ensure your online holiday shopping experience is safe and efficient this holiday season, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) team has put together some tips and red flags to consider when making those all-important gift selections.


CARU's Guide to Holiday Online Shopping


Making a List and Checking it Twice

If the COVID-19 pandemic has kept you away from relatives, you may feel at a loss when trying to pick the best presents for those socially distant nieces and nephews. Retailers like Amazon, Target, and Walmart each year compile their picks for this year’s hottest toys to give you some food for thought. 

Remember to take “Hot Toys of 2020” lists with a grain of salt. Stores pick toys for these lists based on whether they think the toy will be a bestseller. And while you are considering these lists, the CARU team wants you to be mindful of what these lists are not saying. Listing a toy does not constitute an approval in any way of a toys’ safety or data collection practices. To ensure you find a toy that has data collection and privacy practices that you are comfortable with, read the company’s privacy policy. 

A good privacy policy should:

  • Describe WHAT information the toy collects from its users,
  • Define WHO is collecting or has access to the information,
  • Include HOW that information is being stored,
  • Explain HOW and WHY the information is being used, and
  • Outline what parental rights you have to review or remove that information. 

The easiest way to find apps and connected toys that comply with the federal privacy law the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is to find a company who is a member of an FTC-approved Safe Harbor, like CARU's COPPA Safe Harbor program. If you see a CARU seal on a website or app, you can rest assured that its privacy practices comply with CARU's Guidelines and COPPA and that no personal information will be collected from your child without your explicit consent. 

Naughty or Nice? Buyer Beware

Shifting to online shopping takes away the ability to see and touch products, leaving shoppers to depend on the accuracy and availability of product information online. Be sure to read product details carefully so you know exactly how the product works as well as what it comes with. Be mindful of what (if any) accessories must be purchased separately. This could be items like batteries or additional products such as clothing for dolls or items to complete a set. We also recommend reviewing the product packaging to identify important details and operating specifications that may be inadvertently left off the website.

Because online depictions of a product may not always be clear, many online shoppers find it helpful to read online reviews or watch videos of the product to get a closer look. It is important that shoppers are aware that reviewers, influencers, bloggers, and the like may be getting paid for their opinion, either being compensated monetarily or receiving free product from the companies in exchange for posting a review. Part of CARU’s mission is to protect children from deceptive or inappropriate advertising, which includes both product packaging and paid promotional online reviews. 

Look out for advertising disclosures and take this as a teaching opportunity to educate your children about these potential material connections. 

Good Things Come in Small (Age-Appropriate) Packages

Even the best toy is only great if it’s being purchased for a child of an appropriate age. Age recommendations may be less readily apparent while shopping in an online environment so it’s important that parents know to look closely for them. Toys meant for teenagers may be dangerous for younger children or may require adult supervision for a younger audience. Furthermore, connected toys intended for an older child may allow personal information, like audio and video, to be collected without parental consent. 

In addition, connected toys’ companion apps may also have inappropriate information collection practices for children, such as tracking or behavioral advertising, or they may link to sites that are inappropriate for children, like social media. To learn more about the dangers of behavioral advertising and in-app purchases, you can read our recent blog post on the topic. 

Bah! Humbug! 

As a result of the pandemic, many primarily in-person businesses, such as local restaurants, boutique specialty stores, and other retailers had to quickly pivot to provide their services and products online. Unfortunately, quickly standing up an online environment for secure transactions, such as payments, isn’t easy and many of those businesses may lack the technical sophistication necessary to implement a secure website, leaving your personal and financial information vulnerable. Cybercriminals are aware of this and will undoubtedly try to exploit this opportunity. Be mindful of a website’s security if you plan to share your personal information. 

If you feel uncomfortable, give the store or restaurant a call and see if you could do the transaction through an in-person or curbside. 

You Better Watch Out...

When you’re waiting for your special deliveries, be aware that phishing attacks have been on the rise as well, especially during the pandemic. Be mindful when opening emails that appear to be from stores or that look like tracking information. Check to make sure the email addresses they are coming from are legitimate before clicking any links. If you are nervous or suspicious of an email, don’t click on anything in the email. Instead refer to the original order’s confirmation email or navigate to the company’s website to check the status of your order. During the holiday season, it also never hurts to keep an eye on your credit card statements to catch any suspicious activity. 

Let us Know, Let us Know, Let us Know

Remember, Santa isn’t the only one with a “Naughty and Nice” list. If you see products, toys, connected devices, or advertisements this holiday season that get your tinsel in a twist, use our CARU Consumer Complaint form to get in touch. We review each complaint we receive.

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