Digital Crave

10 simple tips for safer online shopping

Marc Saltzman
Digital Crave

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online shopping safety tips

Love online shopping? You're not alone.

According to a recent report published by comScore (NASDAQ: SCOR), more than $42.3 billion was spent online during the November-to-December holiday shopping season, marking a 14 per cent increase over the previous year.

Clearly, many are discovering the benefits of online shopping: you don’t have to fight traffic to drive to the mall and circle the parking lot; online stores are open 24/7 and you can wear your pajamas; it’s easy to compare prices between multiple retailers and read both customer and professional reviews of products before you buy; product selection is vast, to say the least, including many stores and unique items sold outside of the U.S.; and products are shipped right to your door.

But in order to shop online safely, and protect your personal identity from malicious types, take heed to these online shopping safety tips:

Look for the lock

Always use a secure Internet connection when making a purchase. Reputable websites use technologies such as SSL (Secure Socket Layer) that encrypt data during transmission. You will see a little lock icon on your browser (and usually "https" at the front of your address bar) to confirm it’s a secure connection. Some browsers will tell you it’s safe to give out your credit card by showing you a green address bar, while unprotected ones will be highlighted in red.

Use a secure payment method

Only shop on sites that take secure payment methods, such as credit cards, as you’ve got buyer protection – just in case there’s a dispute. Another option is PayPal, which is electronically linked to your credit card or bank account, but never send cash or a check (the only exception is if you use online classifieds, like Craigslist, and meet with the person to conduct the transaction).

Read the store’s policies

Reputable shopping sites should post a privacy policy that outlines what they do with customer information, so be sure to review before you buy. For example, some might sell this data to third parties as an additional revenue stream. On a related note, some sites might attempt to collect personal information such as your shopping habits and annual income. If you’re not comfortable answering these, don’t, or leave the site altogether.

Start small

If you’re new to online shopping, start small until you become more comfortable, with inexpensive products such as movies, books, small articles of clothing. Also, feel free to stick with businesses you already know and trust as most traditional "brick and mortar" retailers now offer online shopping (and one advantage is that some let you return merchandise to their stores, instead of shipping it back, if need be).

Protect your computer

Keep your computer software up to date by turning on "automatic updates." This includes your web browser, which could warn you if you land on a suspicious website. On a related note, use a firewall, antivirus and antispyware software. Good software suites cost $30 to $40 and up, but there are also free versions available (look on the front page of download.com for some suggestions).

Delete suspicious emails

Don't fall for "phishing" attacks. Ignore emails in your inbox that claim to be from a retailer (or your bank or Internet Service Provider). They will likely ask you to confirm your financial or personal details on a website. Some browsers, such as Internet Explorer, can help warn you and block malicious software or phishing threats, including authentic-looking websites that try to fool you into typing in information.

Avoid shopping on hotspots

Try not to do any online shopping when you're using a public computer (such as in an airport lounge) or when you're using a public Wi-Fi network (say, at your favorite coffee shop). You never know if your information is being tracked and logged -- so it's best to wait until you get home. On a related note, be sure to use the browser's "private" feature if it offers one, which helps prevent your browsing history, cookies, and other information from being retained on the computer.

Password pointers

Change your passwords once in a while. It's good to reset your login passwords every so often, just in case someone guesses it or if there’s a data breach at an online retailer. And never use the same password for all online shopping sites (or other web activities, like online banking) as once someone guesses one password, they’ll have free reign over everything else. A strong password is at least seven characters long, has a combination of letters, numbers and symbols.

Do your homework

When on auction sites like eBay, check the seller’s reputation and read comments before buying a product to see what the experience was like for past customers. You can always ask a question to a seller and reputable ones will reply in a timely manner. Also, read the item description carefully before you buy, including where the seller is located, shipping charges, if the product is new or used, refund and return policies, and payment methods accepted.

Check your statement

Rather than waiting for your credit card bill or bank statement to come in the mail once a month, try to make time to go online regularly to look at electronic statements. Scan through your transactions to ensure they’re all accounted for. If you see something odd, contact your financial institution immediately and they could tell you where the purchases were made. For credit cards, only pay the bill only once you know all your charges are accurate; you have a month to notify your bank or credit card company of any issues.

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