Talking tech since 2003

The holiday season is upon us and that means there’s a lot of last minute shopping going on, especially online shopping. Even those of us who don’t normally do a lot of our shopping online tend to do so this time of year in order to beat the crowds and take advantage of fast shipping to make sure that gifts arrive on time.

It’s a busy time for online retailers – and also a busy time for identity thieves and scammers of all stripes. It pays to be careful when you’re shopping online, especially around the holidays and the following tips can help you to keep yourself safe as you cross the final items off your holiday shopping list.

Be Careful When Using Mobile Devices

It’s easier than ever to shop online from your phone, but it’s also potentially just as dangerous as using a desktop or laptop computer—if you aren’t careful. Most mobile devices, especially phones, don’t have anti-virus software or malware scanners, which leaves an opening for criminals. Additionally, mobile browsers often truncate URLs which can make it a little trickier to tell if you’re visiting a secure site; and of course, if your phone is stolen, so is any personal or financial information stored on it (unless it’s encrypted and if you have sensitive data on your phone you should definitely store it in a secure app).

Bottom line: be just as careful when shopping via the mobile web on your smartphone/tablet as you are when you shop from your desktop/laptop. Your best bet when it comes to shopping on a mobile device is to download and use the retailer’s dedicated app. Retailers like Amazon and so many others offer apps in the various App Stores that making shopping from your smartphone or tablet a breeze.

Stick With Trusted Sites

holiday_shopping_thiefListen to your gut when shopping online. If a site has a strange URL, is full of pop-up ads, is poorly designed or just plain seems off, pass it by without giving the site any information that criminals could use. You could be losing out on a “good deal,” but more likely, you’ll be protecting yourself from identity theft. If you’re not sure about a site, you can check with the Better Business Bureau or Truste to see if it’s known to these organizations and whether it meets their standards for security and privacy before making a purchase.

Avoid Public Wi-Fi Networks

Public Wi-Fi networks are rarely encrypted and are generally not secure. Anyone else using the same Wi-Fi hotspot can use packet sniffers and other software to capture any information you’re sending over that network. As a rule of thumb, don’t use a public Wi-Fi network to send anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying out loud to everyone on your local coffee shop or wherever else you’re using a public network. Free Wi-Fi may be convenient, but it’s definitely not as secure as your own home network.

Get a Virtual Credit Card Number

If you find something that you absolutely must have on a site which seems sketchy to you, ask your bank or credit card issuer about getting a virtual credit card number. These are temporary credit card numbers which let you specify a spending limit and the time in which you can use them, so you don’t have to reveal any real account information when shopping on a suspicious site. Even if criminals get their hands on this number, the damage is limited to the amount you’ve set and the number will expire quickly.

Check For Encryption

Encrypted sites are much more common than they used to be, but don’t assume that every site is secure. Before making a purchase on any site, take a quick look at the address bar in your web browser. The site’s URL should begin with https:// rather than simply http://. The “s” stands for SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), which means all information transmitted to the site is encrypted.

Update Your Web Browser And Malware Protection

If you haven’t updated your web browser lately, now would be a good time for it. Virtually every update includes security fixes that can help to protect you from hackers. While you’re at it, update your anti-virus software, malware scanner and any other security software you have installed on your computer for added protection from viruses.

Read The Fine Print

arnold-holiday-shoppingA lot of people never read privacy policies, but it’s a very good habit to get into if you’re going to shop online. There is a lot of legalese to wade through in many of these policies, but this is where you can find out for sure exactly how a given website uses and transmits visitor information. Reading the privacy policy will also tell you whether the site might sell your information to or share it with any third parties. Another thing to consider reading (especially during the holiday season) is a retailer’s return policy. You don’t want to get burned by that.

Use Online Payment Services

Another way to keep your credit card number hidden is to use an online payment service like PayPal or Bill Me Later. These services store your credit card information securely and allow you to shop online without having to divulge this information directly to retailers. PayPal provides a little additional security by monitoring accounts for suspicious activity.

Shopping online provides a welcome break from dealing with crowds of last minute shoppers, but there are risks which every consumer should be aware of. As long as you take the common sense precautions listed here, you should be able to get your holiday shopping done on time without inadvertently handing over your credit card information to criminals preying on harried holiday shoppers.

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