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Protect Yourself When You're Shopping Online

Protect Yourself When You're Shopping Online

Now that Thanksgiving has passed, we're all shuddering at the oncoming influx of advertisements, deals and coupons that have been flooding our inboxes. After all, for almost a decade, retailers have been forcing their sales further and further into good Thanksgiving family time. If your town doesn't have blue laws, it's likely that your neighbors were out shopping on Thanksgiving evening. With the holiday advertising rush, images of parking lots and lines begin to dance in our heads. Who needs to brave the malls, though, when it's so much easier to turn on a computer and shop from the comfort of your home?

Of course, as soon as you start handing over your personal information (like your credit card number) on the internet, you have to start thinking about how to protect yourself online.

Don't Take the Bait

You'll see a lot of emails, which may or may not go directly to spam, attempting to trick you into providing sensitive information like your password, social security number or credit card information. Whenever an online scammer tries to trick you into giving them your personal information, it's called phishing. Norton provides guides on avoiding these scams:

  • Do not click links or attachments in suspicious emails. If you're not sure, open a new tab in your browser and manually type in the web address you need to access.
  • Watch out for emails disguised as if they are coming from companies; some phishers will try to disguise emails to look official, but when you proceed to provide the requested information, you'll be duped. Look at the email address that the message came from. It'll be obvious that the email is a phish if the company name is slightly misspelled, not even used or inaccurate for the company.
  • Protect yourself against pop-up scams on websites. Don't click on pop-up messages and close them as soon as possible. If it seems like a message from a legitimate company, like a cybersecurity firm or online store, examine the message closely for bad grammar, poor formatting or other signs of unprofessionalism.
  • Keep a mental log of sites that you trust and their security policies. Many companies have policies against using pop-ups or asking for certain kinds of information from you. For example, the IRS will only contact you by mail, and if they contact by phone they will only do so after sending a written notice.
  • Skip past advertisements that show up at the top of a search results list. According to Norton, it's possible for scammer to pay to place their malware in prime search location. You'll know that they're advertisements because the search engine will label them.

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Be a Suspicious Site Sleuth

It's one thing to order a unique gift from a small retailer. It's another thing to have your credit card information stolen. Protect yourself by investigating sites that don't seem right.

  • If the website looks like it hasn't been updated in a couple decades, you should probably skip it.
  • Before you enter any financial information into the fields, make sure the site is secure by checking that the web address starts with https:// (as opposed to http://). The "s" stands for "secure" and is just one sign that the site is working to protect your information. Secure sites will also have a small padlock next to the web address.
  • Examine web addresses closely. If there's a typo in the web address, you're on the wrong site. Don't click on search results until you look at the URL and double check that it's O.K.
  • If the website starts asking you for information that they shouldn't need to complete your order, like your social security number or annual salary, your internal alarms should go off. Get out of there.
  • It's possible that a website is totally legitimate when it comes to accepting your payment and shipping out an item … and it's also possible that the item might not arrive as it was pictured. Check the website's return policy before you make your purchase.

Make Safe Payments

Generally, it's safer to use a credit card to order things online than it is to use a debit card, check or cash. That's because the credit card company will cancel any fraudulent purchases before you're financially responsible for them. However, if you're queasy about entering your credit card number online, there is one alternative: virtual credit cards allow you to make purchases using temporary accounts. Designed specifically for online shopping, virtual credit cards stop companies from maintaining permanent databases of your payment information. Because a virtual credit card uses different numbers for each purchase, you'll protect yourself against future data breaches.

Another aspect of making safe payments is keeping your online shopping to protected WiFi networks. A protected network is one that requires you to enter a password to access and is limited to residential properties. Purchasing a mug at Starbucks is fine, but purchasing a mug from Starbucks' website while on Starbucks' WiFi is a great way to put your personal information at risk. If your home network is not protected, set up a password for your router ASAP.

Stay Up-to-Date

Change your passwords on a regular basis. A strong password contains a mixture of letters, numbers and symbols, and is twelve or more characters long. You should avoid using passwords that will be easy to guess by people who know you. Google provides some good tips for creating strong passwords. Another way to protect your login information is to enable multi-factor authentication.

Update your computer, phone and browser on a regular basis so that all security features are current. Anti-virus programs often include features to improve your browsing safety, and they will run regular scans to make sure you don't have any malware running on your computer and logging your keystrokes. Ad-blocking programs can be tailored to protect you against malicious pop-ups. Browsers like Google Chrome also include their own protections to warn you if you've accidentally navigated to a dangerous site.

With all of these protections, though, it's still important to remain vigilant. Trusted antivirus providers and news sites like Wired often maintain blogs that keep track of recent cybersecurity news. By staying connected to the latest cybersecurity news, you can avoid potential scams before they come for you.

As a final line of protection, it's possible to add endorsements to your homeowners insurance policy to cover credit card fraud and identity fraud expenses.