How To Shop Online Safely

12 tips to make your online shopping more secure

This year, more people than ever will choose to do their shopping from the comfort of their couches. Adobe Digital Index predicts that 31 percent of online sales this shopping season will be made through smartphones or tablets, up from 21 percent in 2013.

While shopping within the warm confines of your home saves you from the danger of stampeding crowds, the risk of online security breaches and identity theft is very real. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, by 2012 over 34 million people in the United States had experienced one or more incidents of identity theft.

It’s impossible to shop online without giving up at least some of your personal data, so take as many precautionary steps possible to protect you and your information from being compromised.

Lock your devices when you’re not around

Keep prying eyes off your personal information by using built-in password-/passcode-protected login tools on your phone, tablet or laptop.

Make sure all of your security software is up to date

This may seem obvious, but only about half of all computer and smartphone users actually have some sort of security software on their devices, according to Internet security firm Webroot. Another common mistake is forgetting to upgrade security software along with an operating system upgrade. On the flip side, software updates are harder to come by for operating systems that are older and decreasingly supported, such as Windows XP, which is still running on 17 percent of PCs.

Always use a secure connection

This goes without saying if you’re shopping from home, but in many public places—airports, fast food restaurants and auto repair shops among them—the Wi-Fi is wide open. Anyone with illicit know-how could help themselves to all sorts of personal data, including bank accounts, passwords, email, texts, photos and more. If the public Wi-Fi provider can’t offer a secure connection, consider postponing your shopping spree until you are someplace you trust.

Don’t trust every link you see

If you receive a link to an unfamiliar website or contact person via email, exercise caution. It could be a “phishing” scheme, where shoppers who click through are led to a false site designed to steal their personal data. If the deal is too good to pass up, enter the website name by hand into your browser and see where it leads.

Stick to genuine websites

In other words, don’t click on emails or third-party sites that redirect you to what may appear to be official Best Buy or Costco websites as they could be fake. Go to the actual store site yourself to find the product you want. If you have to access a site by third-party means, check the link for abnormalities, such as an extra “.cc” at the end of the domain name when it should be a “.com,” or a redirect to a URL that’s completely off the mark.

Beware of ‘nosey’ vendors

If an online vendor starts asking for too much personal information, such as your social security number, stop your purchase. Give the minimum amount of information needed to make your transaction succeed. Furthermore, legitimate vendors should never request personal information and credit card details over email.

Plan ahead, and take your time

Before you shop, make sure you know exactly what types of places you plan to visit on the Internet—and a general idea of what you’re looking for. This will make things less hectic during actual shopping, and you’ll be less likely to fall into the “it all looks good” trap. When you see a phenomenal bargain, don’t be afraid to price check the product at another website or two. Cyberthieves count on people being in such a hurry to catch all the great sales, they’ll be careless and not notice a fake page, a redirected URL, or a “too good to be true” deal that is literally just that.

Don’t forget the ‘S’

https lockWhen buying online, make sure any site you make a purchase from has a lock symbol in the URL line and includes an “s” in the HTTP protocol. It’s not unusual for a website to lack the “https” in its regular browsing link. Just make sure it changes to “https” when you’re ready to buy something. Also, ignore the option to have your credit card data stored on a vendor’s website (“save for future purchases”), especially during the holidays. A hacker could have free reign to your financial profile.

Practice password safety

You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: Don’t use the same password on every online account that you have; make your passwords difficult to crack by using a combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters. And don’t broadcast your password in an email or text to relatives or friends. Do the same with user names (if given the option).

Remember ‘Buyer Beware’

A disadvantage to shopping online is that you don’t get to truly see what you’re buying. The best you can hope for is for the vendor to use real images, not stock photos or “see it to believe it!” banners on the website. With a major vendor, this might not be as big an issue. But raise your guard with smaller, independent sites, such as many found on Amazon.com’s marketplace. Check the seller’s ratings and what other buyers have said. If the merchant has poor reviews or is not well established, you can probably find what you want from another vendor selling the same item at a similar price. Also, check the merchant’s policy on returns, and become familiar with your bank’s/credit card’s policies on refunds. Finally, learn about the Fair Credit Billing Act, which limits your responsibility for erroneous or fraudulent charges to $50 in the United States.

Review the company’s privacy policy

Check how the merchant uses your personal information, especially to see if it will be shared with third parties. Also, only disclose facts necessary to complete your purchase and not any additional information about yourself to minimize chances of identity theft.

Check credit card and bank statements after purchases

You’ll want to track your statements for at least the next two cycles. If you can monitor your purchases online, start the day you begin your holiday shopping and keep checking for a few weeks after you’re done. Make sure you only purchased the number of gifts you actually wanted, and check for completely false charges. If you find anything bizarre, contact the vendor and your bank.

Top photo credit: John B. Henderson/Flickr.

Source: Intel Free Press.