Shopping online during the holidays can save you a lot of time and a lot of money. Plus, there’s almost no chance you’ll be trampled while shopping in your living room.
That doesn’t mean, however, that online shopping comes without risks. As commerce becomes increasingly digital, thieves have adapted their strategies.
You don’t need to be afraid of buying online, but you should be cautious. Consider taking these steps to protect yourself, your identity and your money before making your next purchase online.
- Secure your computer. Scammers and online predators are constantly evolving their tactics to get around current protections. Last year’s anti-virus software can’t handle this year’s viruses. So make sure your computer has the latest security updates installed and that you’re receiving automatic updates. If you haven’t already done so, install a firewall before you begin your online shopping.
- Upgrade your browser. You might like your current browser just fine, but browser upgrades don’t just mean layout changes – they often include important security updates. Also, you should review the browser’s security settings and apply the highest level of security available that still gives you the functionality you need.
- Ignore pop-up messages. Set your browser to block pop-up messages. Some legitimate websites may use pop-ups in response to a deliberate command, but you should ignore any pop-up that appears randomly. If you do receive one, click on the "X" at the top right corner of the title bar to close the pop-up message.
- Secure your transactions. Look for the padlock icon on the browser's status bar and be sure “https” appears in the web address before making an online purchase. The s stands for secure and indicates that the webpage is encrypted.
- Use strong passwords. Easy passwords are easier to remember. They’re also easier for thieves to guess. Take the time to create a strong password for your online accounts, with at least eight characters, and a mixture of numbers, special characters, and upper and lower case letters. Don’t share your password and if you have to write it down, don’t leave it near your computer or in your wallet.
- Do not e-mail sensitive data. Never e-mail credit card or other sensitive information. E-mail is not a secure form of communication.
- Do not use public computers or public wireless to conduct transactions. Public computers may contain malicious software that steals your credit card information when you place your order. Criminals may be monitoring public wireless for credit card numbers and other confidential information.
- Review privacy policies. You may be providing merchants with more information than you thought. Understand what information the merchant is collecting about you, how it will be used, and if it will be shared or sold to others.
- Make payments securely. Pay by credit card rather than debit card. Credit card transactions are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act. That means that if someone swipes your card number, you’re typically only liable for the first $50 in unauthorized charges. If a criminal nabs your debit card information, however, they have the potential to empty your bank account and getting that money back will be significantly more difficult.
- Use temporary account authorizations. Some credit card companies offer virtual or temporary credit card numbers. This service gives you a temporary account number for online transactions. These numbers are issued for a short period of time and cannot be used after that period, protecting you from fraudulent use after they’ve expired.
- Select merchants carefully. One of the beauties of online shopping is the wealth of small, independent merchants you can now select from. Unfortunately, it also means that there’s a wealth of predatory, fake merchants out there as well. Limit your online shopping to merchants you know and trust. Confirm the seller's physical address and phone number in case you have questions or problems.
- Keep a record. Don’t forget to record the product description, the online receipt, and copies of every e-mail you send or receive from the seller. And you should always be reviewing your credit card and bank statements for unauthorized charges.
If you run into any problems
Always attempt to address any issues with the merchant directly. If you don’t have any luck resolving the problem, then you may need to escalate your efforts. Try contacting the Attorney General’s office for your state. You can also file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission.