How to Shop Online Safely

By Lynn Truong on 30 November 2009 (Updated 4 February 2011) 4 comments

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This article shares tips from the 15th episode of Dealista,our podcast that'll help you get more for less.

Black Friday officially rang in the holiday shopping season and today is Cyber Monday, the day when retailers offer big sales online. If you didn't head out before dawn to line up for Black Friday deals, perhaps you've already spent your morning back at work shopping from the comfort of your desk and checking people off your gift list.

However, with the uptake in online shopping, so does online crime. Thankfully, there are a few easy things we can do to avoid becoming a victim of it.

Computer Safety

Make sure the computer you are using is secure. That means downloading and installing updates for your operating system, security software (firewall, anti-virus, and anti-spyware), and even your browser. Comodo, Avira, and Super AntiSpyware are popular, safe, and free security programs. (Make sure you're downloading the free versions of each. Sometimes they make the "free trial" button bigger than the "free version" button.) Update and secure your wireless connection.

Because you have less control over the security features, it's best to avoid using public computers and public wireless connections whenever you are shopping online or accessing personal financial information.

Seller Reputation

Check out the store before placing an order. Do a search for reviews and only shop from stores that are reputable and have been rated. The site should have a privacy policy, a returns policy, and a physical address and phone number. During the order process, look for a yellow padlock on the status bar of your browser screen. Also look for a URL that starts with https rather than the usual http. The “s” indicates that you're on a secure page, which means that the data sent from that page is encrypted (and difficult for hackers to access). Do not enter your credit card or other sensitive information if you do not see these symbols on the site.

Private Sellers

When shopping on sites like Ebay or Etsy, the best you can do is to check the seller's ratings and feedback. Also, always go through the formal process as directed by the site. If a seller requests that a sale be made "off site," report the seller immediately. Sometimes sellers offer a discount for doing this to bypass the seller fees they pay when a sale is recorded. It's best to be safe than sorry in these cases.

Payment Security

Credit cards will offer a higher level of protection than debit cards or cash. If you use a check or debit card, the amount is first taken out of your checking account, and you'd have to go through a process to get it back. But if you see an unauthorized charge on your credit card, you can dispute it before having to pay for it first.

Some credit card companies also offer temporary account numbers or prepaid cards to lessen the risk of identity theft. The temporary account numbers may be good only for a limited time, or for online shopping only with a smaller credit limit.

Purchase Tracking

It may be easy to forget about an order or two, so keep track of all your purchases and check that the correct amount was charged on your credit cards. Also track their shipping status and confirm that each order is properly delivered.

Email Fraud

To be safe, it's best to never click on a single link in an email. However, the most important ones to avoid are the ones that ask you to "confirm" your financial information. It might even use the name of the bank you actually have an account in. If that's the case, type the address of the bank site directly in your browser and contact them directly to ask if they really are looking for you.

Report Problems

If you have been a victim of online fraud, report to the following:

  • the Attorney General's office in your state
  • your county or state consumer protection agency
  • the Better Business Bureau at: www.bbb.org
  • the Federal Trade Commission at: www.ftc.gov/

Dealista is a collaboration between Wise Bread and Quick and Dirty Tips, the producer of popular podcasts such as Grammar Girl, Money Girl, Winning Investor, and Mighty Mommy.

If you enjoyed these tips you can find more in our show's archive.

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Guest's picture

I was speaking to someone who works for a major bank here in the UK on their anti fraud team last week and she told me that you should only ever use a credit card for online purchases. The reason she gave was that if there is a case of fraud, your card is cloned for example, if it's a debit card it's your money not the banks and they wont be in a hurry to investigate. If it is a credit card then it's the banks money and they prioritise those cases.

She also said that you would only get your money back if it can be proved to be fraudulent activity. If it can't be proved you have to pay up!

Guest's picture
Lauren McCormick

I had my card compromised just a couple of weeks ago. I was looking at my bank statement, and I noticed a $1 ITunes charge. I don't use them. I read somewhere that when someone steals your card info that they will run $1 and $2 charges through to see if they are noticed and then hit you for the big bucks. I called the bank's fraud protection immediately and canceled the card. THE VERY NEXT DAY, fraud protection called me to ask about a $104 charge to a baby store. Haven't shopped one of those stores in a long time. I got really lucky.

Also another good reason to use your card as a credit card is that warranties are usually doubled if you use it to purchase the item.

Guest's picture
Stacey Marcos

I use paypal with funding through my credit card. It gives me double the sense of security. I have my credit card info hidden by paypal and both have fraud protection.

Guest's picture
Guest

Yes, I've heard on NPR (US national public radio) that the credit card companies are really good about fraud protection for their card holders - the credit card takes the hit rather you do for fraudulent purchases. They do this not out of the goodness of their corporate hearts, but because they are required to do so by law. Debit cards, not so much.