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Safely Shopping Online

If you shop online, it's a good idea to review your shopping practices to keep your finances and personal information safe.

Traditionally, most electronic commerce (e-commerce) transactions happen with a computer. However, Donna Tam reported (in a September 2012  cnet article) that shopping on mobile devices has become a $20 billion business—with $5 billion spent through tablets. This shopping season will continue the trend, due to the increased number of smartphones and tablets in use. Regardless of the device, shoppers still need to follow some guidelines to shop safely this holiday season—especially on high-traffic  Cyber Monday and  Green Monday.

Prepare your computer or device

  • Make sure the operating system (Windows, iOS) and browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari) are up-to-date for security patches and browser version.
  • Set the browser security settings to the highest, yet functional, level.
  • Update the anti-virus and anti-spyware software with the latest definitions.
  • Use a computer or device in a secure location. Using a public, wireless connection puts your information at risk of being “captured” by criminals monitoring those locations.

Don’t regret the online experience

  • Only use websites you trust. Read reviews by other buyers and ask co-workers, family, and friends for preferred vendors. You can compare both user reviews and prices at websites like Pricegrabber and  BizRate.
  • Look for the “lock” icon on the address or status bar of the browser. This indicates the site uses security technology to encrypt your personal and financial information. Third-party seals of approval, such as the  Better Business Bureau and  TRUSTe, indicate the business handles your private information appropriately. To verify a seal’s authenticity, it’s a good idea to click on it to make sure it directs your browser to the corresponding website.
  • Amazon dot com URL
  • Look for “https” in the website address to ensure transactions at the site are encrypted. The “s” in the address line represents “secure.”
  • Read the privacy policies of the company to see what information of yours is shared.
  • Don’t click on links in pop-ups. (You might want to turn pop-ups off in your browser.)
  • Check the final price for an item, including shipping and handling. It might be wise to buy the item locally if the total price is more than the local price plus sales tax.
  • What are the procedures for returning an item? The return timeline and procedure and the refund policy should be stated clearly on the website.
  • Read the fine print. Don’t hurry and inadvertently sign up for add-ons or unnecessary purchases.
  • Before submitting your order, make sure all information is correct.
  • Print your order so you know exactly when and what you ordered. 

Consider payment and account security

  • Use a credit card and not a debit card. Credit card transactions are protected by the  Fair Credit Billing Act and will limit your responsibility to $50 in the event of a problem.
  • Some credit card companies offer additional warranty protection and other benefits when you use their card to purchase items.
  • If possible, use your credit card company’s “temporary account” option. For example, Bank of America has a  ShopSafe® Service that can create a unique, temporary account number for each online transaction. This number is linked to your account but doesn’t reveal your “permanent” account number and disappears after the transaction is complete.
  • If you do not have a credit card, purchase and use a “preloaded” credit card (e.g., gift card). Some local stores allow money spent on these cards to apply toward fuel savings or other perks.
  • Use one card for online transactions only to make it easier to track wrongful charges.
  • If you create accounts at vendor websites, make sure you use strong passwords with at least eight characters consisting of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and a special character. Or, use a  passphrase.
  • Change your passwords frequently.
  • If you have difficulty remembering your passwords, don’t write them down. Instead, you might want to use software like LastPass, Password Safe or  KeePass. These programs can store and protect usernames and passwords in a secure database that’s accessible by one master password. When you forget a password, open the database with the master password and find the information you need.
  • Review your bank and credit card accounts daily. If you haven’t set up an account to view these accounts online, do so now. Daily monitoring helps you stay within your shopping budget, too.
  • While storing your credentials at a company’s website is handy, it’s also risky in the event of a security breach at the company. Even though it is tedious, typing your information each time you make a purchase is safer.

Tracking your purchase

  • Once you have purchased your item(s), watch for an email message from the company. Usually, the message will have a link to track the package’s transit. If, however, you receive a message from UPS or other delivery service, delete it. This is a scam seeking personal and financial information.
  • If you think your account has been compromised, immediately contact the Web service or business, your credit card company, your bank or other involved financial institution. Report scams or fraud in the United States to the  Federal Trade Commission (877-382-4357), the  Better Business Bureau, and your  state’s attorney general’s office. Your county or state consumer protection agency (online or in the blue pages of the phone book) also might provide help.