10 Ways to Stay Safe When Shopping Online

by Staff Writer

When the headlines are filled with new hacking cases, ranging from the cyber attack on Israel's El Al airline and national stock exchange to the compromised information on online superstore Zappos, it might make you feel like it's time to give up the Internet altogether. But let's be honest; you'd never survive. So instead of swearing off the magical tool completely, you just need to know how to keep your information safe, especially when you're providing personal information when shopping online. If you're one of the 24 million Zappos customers, change your password pronto like they told you to do and then move on to these 10 steps to keep yourself safe from identity theft.

  1. Trust your gut

    Just like you wouldn't go into a store at the mall that you don't recognize and seems a little off to you, don't shop at stores online that give you a bad feeling and appear shady. If at any time during the shopping or checkout process you feel like the site is asking for too much personal information, just quit the transaction and leave the site. You may hate to leave behind a really good deal, but the money and time you could lose if someone gets your credit card information will definitely cancel out the benefits of a sale price. If the site looks like it was designed in the '90s, has a weird address, or fills your screen with pop-ups, just forget about it.

  2. Be extra careful if you're on a mobile device

    Smartphones can basically do everything a computer can do nowadays, but that doesn't mean they are as protected against threats as your desktop. Most phones aren't equipped with the anti-virus software that you have on your computer, so it's easier for criminals to get malware on your mobile device that could help them steal information you enter. The shortened URLs that are often used because they're more phone-friendly can also trick you into visiting a risky site since it's harder to tell whether it's secure or trusted. There's also the risk of your phone being stolen, so make sure it's password protected so any information you may have stored on it isn't easily accessed.

  3. Don't use public Wi-Fi to shop

    Anytime you enter personal information using a public network, you're setting yourself up for identity theft. Most Wi-Fi hotspots don't encrypt your data, so any hacker at your neighborhood Starbucks or wherever you're sharing Wi-Fi can basically just pluck your identity out of the air if he has the right software. This applies to cell phones, too, since you're often using nearby Wi-Fi. Be aware when you're using a hotspot that any information you send through the Internet could be picked up by strangers; if it's information that could make you vulnerable, wait until you get home to your protected network. It may be less convenient, but it's much safer.

  4. Check your credit card statement frequently

    Using a credit card is really the only smart way to shop online. If you buy something from a scam site using a debit card, check, or cash, there's no way to get your money back. If you use a credit card, the card companies have to reimburse you for fraudulent charges under the Fair Credit Billing Act. But they can't always catch purchases you didn't make or receive, so it's up to you to keep an eye on your statements. If you see something fishy on your statement, just contact your credit card company to dispute the charge and possibly get a new card so the charges won't continue.

  5. Use a virtual credit card number

    If you just have to have something on a site you're unfamiliar with, there's a neat little thing called a virtual credit card number that allows you to shop online without exposing your real account number. Several banks offer these kind of temporary credit card numbers that allow you to set the amount and time frame for a purchase and then send you a card number to use online. You minimize the damage since the number will expire relatively quickly and has a lower maximum spending amount and your real credit card number is still secret. At the very least, limit your online spending to one traditional credit card so the damage and hassle is contained to one credit card company if you do get hacked.

  6. Change your passwords regularly

    We know, we know. It's a pain to go through and change the passwords on all your online accounts, not to mention the trouble it'll take to try to remember them all. But if you really want to keep your information (and bank account) safe while you're shopping via the Internet, it's essential to mix up your account passwords every three to six months. This puts the kibosh on any hackers who have managed to break into your account. You should also make sure that you don't have the same password across all your accounts, since that makes them all vulnerable if one is hacked.

  7. Look for HTTPS in the URL rather than HTTP

    The Internet has a thousand different acronyms and it's impossible for those who aren't tech savvy to keep track of them all. One you really need to know if you're going to make online purchases, though, is HTTPS. The added "S" means that the way your information is being sent is secure. HTTPS using SSL, or Secure Sockets Layer, which encrypts the information flying through the wires so that only the intended recipient can see it. If you're considering buying from a site whose URL starts with HTTP, be careful with the information you share. Other signs of a secure site are a closed lock or unbroken key at the bottom of the screen.

  8. Don't click on links in emails

    Instead, type out the address in your browser to make sure you're going to the site you think you're visiting. Many phishing scams involve emails from what seem like legitimate sites — banks, online stores, anything you might trust — and then send you to a phony site where they can gather your information to steal your identity. If you get an email from a site where you've shopped before, make sure you don't follow the links and don't provide any financial or personal information the email requests. Real sites won't ask for important information over email. If you have any doubts about an email's authenticity, go to the company's website and get in contact with them.

  9. Check the company's privacy policy

    Reading the privacy policy is the only way to know for sure what a company does with users' information and how it is transmitted. Most of us have a tendency to gloss over this information, especially if it's lumped with the terms of service that we all say we've read and agreed to, but it's important if you want to make sure your personal data can't be sold to any third parties and that it is encrypted and secure. You've got to know the privacy policy, because like G.I. Joe said, knowing is half the battle.

  10. Update your browser

    Each new version of your Internet browser, especially if you use one of the more popular browsers, gets a boost in security. Older browsers, besides not working as well with some websites, often have holes in their security that hackers have discovered and can exploit. The same goes for your operating system and anti-virus software. Updates will keep you ahead of would-be identity thieves and keep your credit safe.

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