Let's face it, there's every reason in the world to shop online. The bargains are there. The selection is mind-boggling. The shopping is secure. Shipping is fast. Even returns are pretty easy, with the right e-tailers. Shopping has never been easier or more convenient for consumers.
But what about the bad guys who lay in wait? IID's Third Quarter eCrime Report for 2011 indicates that use of phishing attacks (where thieves attempt to swindle you out of your sign-in credentials and even credit card info by pretending to be a real website, or even an online bank) is down, as much as eight percent since the second quarter and 11 percent since the third quarter of last year. That's great news—except the same report says sites with malware (malicious code aimed at compromising your privacy) has increased by 89 percent since the second quarter.
Stay calm. While somewhat alarming, these stats should not keep you from shopping online. You simply need some common sense and practical advice. Follow these basic guidelines and you can shop online with confidence. Here are 11 tips for staying safe online, so you can start checking off items on that holiday shopping list.
1. Use Familiar Websites
Start at a trusted site rather than shopping with a search engine. Search results can be rigged to lead you astray, especially when you drift past the first few pages of links. If you know the site, chances are it's less likely to be a rip off. We all know Amazon.com and that it carries everything under the sun; likewise, just about every major retail outlet has an online store, from Target to Best Buy to Home Depot. Beware of misspellings or sites using a different top-level domain (.net instead of .com, for example)—those are the oldest tricks in the book. Yes, the sales on these sites might look enticing, but that's how they trick you into giving up your info.
2. Look for the Lock
Never ever, ever buy anything online using your credit card from a site that doesn't have SSL (secure sockets layer) encryption installed—at the very least. You'll know if the site has SSL because the URL for the site will start with HTTPS:// (instead of just HTTP://). An icon of a locked padlock will appear, typically in the status bar at the bottom of your web browser, or right next to the URL in the address bar. It depends on your browser.
Never, ever give anyone your credit card over email. Ever.
3. Don't Tell All
No online shopping store needs your social security number or your birthday to do business. However, if crooks get them, combined with your credit card number for purchases, they can do a lot of damage. The more they know, the easier it is to steal your identity. When possible, default to giving up the least amount of information.
4. Check Statements
Don't wait for your bill to come at the end of the month. Go online regularly during the holiday season and look at electronic statements for your credit card, debit card, and checking accounts. Make sure you don't see any fraudulent charges, even originating from sites like PayPal. (After all, there's more than one way to get to your money.)
If you do see something wrong, pick up the phone to address the matter quickly. In the case of credit cards, pay the bill only once you know all your charges are accurate. You have 30 days to notify the bank or card issuer of problems, however; after that, you might be liable for the charges anyway.
5. Inoculate Your PC
Swindlers don't just sit around waiting for you to give them data; sometimes they give you a little something extra to help things along. You need to protect against malware with regular updates to your anti-virus program. PCMag recommends Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus (4.5 stars, Editors' Choice, $39.95 direct), which has extras to help fight ID theft, or at the very least the free Ad-Aware Free Internet Security 9.0
6. Use Strong Passwords
We like to beat this dead horse about making sure to utilize uncrackable passwords, but it's never more important than when banking and shopping online. Our tips for creating a unique password can come in handy during a time of year when shopping around probably means creating new accounts on all sorts of e-commerce sites.
7. Think Mobile
The National Retail Federation says that 5.7 percent of adults will use their mobile devices to do comparison shopping before making a purchase. (And 32.1 percent will comparison shop online with a computer, as well.) There's no real need to be any more nervous about shopping on a mobile device than online. The trick is to use apps provided directly by the retailers, like Amazon, Target, etc. Use the apps to find what you want and then make the purchase directly, without going to the store or the website. (For more complete information, be sure to also read our tips for shopping safely on a mobile device.)
8. Avoid Public Terminals
Hopefully we don't have to tell you it's a bad idea to use a public computer to make purchases, but we still will. If you do, just remember to log out every time you use a public terminal, even if you were just checking email.
What about using your own laptop to shop while you're out? It's one thing to hand over a credit card to get swiped at the checkout, but when you must enter the number and expiration date on a website while sitting in a public cafe, you're giving an over-the-shoulder snooper plenty of time to see the goods. At the very least, think like a gangster: Sit in the back, facing the door.
9. Privatize Your Wi-Fi
If you do decide to go out with the laptop to shop, you'll need a Wi-Fi connection. Only use the wireless if you access the Web over a virtual private network (VPN) connection. If you don't get one from your employer, you can set up a free one with AnchorFree Hotspot Shield, if you're willing to put up with the ads, or pay $4.99 a month or $44.99 a year to skip the ads. There's even an iOS app version of Hotspot Shield, but that will cost you $.99 per month or $9.99 a year after the first seven days.
By the way, now is not a good time to try out a hotspot you're unfamiliar with. Stick to known networks, even if they're free, like those found at Starbucks or Barnes & Noble stores that is powered by AT&T. Look for the network named "attwifi," then open a browser to click into the "walled garden" to get final access. You can also find free Wi-Fi at McDonalds, Panera Bread, and FedEx Office locations, not to mention libraries and local cafes.
10. Count the Cards
Gift cards are the most requested holiday gift every year, and this year will be no exception. Stick to the source when you buy one; scammers like to auction off gift cards on sites like eBay with little or no funds on them.
11. Know What's Too Good to Be True
Once again, McAfee has compiled a Twelve Scams of Christmas list, all things to be aware of while shopping. The "coupon scam" offers of a free product with purchase, in particular an iPad (a very coveted gadget at any holiday) or even holiday job offers. Many of these "offers" will come in via social media. Beware even of your friends, who might innocently forward such a thing. Be very wary even if you get a message from friend claiming he or she has been robbed, especially a friend overseas looking for money to be wire transferred, unless you absolutely can confirm it by talking to him or her personally. Skepticism in most cases can go a long way toward saving you from a stolen card number.