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Safe Shopping Network's Tips for Safe Online Shopping

Protect yourself from identity thieves and other online retail scams

Most of us couldn’t do without the convenience of online shopping. Whether it means getting the best price on the latest video game or purchasing the perfect pair of shoes, online shopping gives us access to products, services, and special deals that might be unavailable to us otherwise.

However, online shopping has its risks. The popularity—and profitability—of online retail has resulted in unscrupulous people looking to take advantage of unwary shoppers. Their tactics may include:

  • Deception. In the virtual world, it can be hard to distinguish reputable retailers from criminals, as just about anyone can set up a fraudulent web site that appears to be a legitimate business.
  • Invasion. You may inadvertently download spyware on your computer that allows access to your personal information and passwords, and sophisticated hackers can breach online business databases to harvest customer payment information.

With risks that differ from walk-in stores, online shopping requires special precautions. To protect yourself and your information, we have listed several steps to take before you type in your credit card information and click “Buy.”

Use a good anti-malware program

This may sound obvious, but many people ignore the advice to install anti-malware software. It is critical that online shoppers secure their PC from viruses and other attacks.

To ensure that your security program’s protection stays current, keep its virus and malware signatures up-to-date. Fortunately, most programs can automatically update these signatures, so be sure the automatic updating feature is enabled in your software.  There are several good companies that do this, Norton being one of them.

Optimize your PC’s security settings

In addition to maintaining and updating your antivirus and antispyware protection, make sure your PC’s security settings are optimized. Many malicious programs are explicitly designed to take advantage of security vulnerabilities in operating systems and web browsers. Two simple ways to protect yourself:

  • Keep your browser and operating system up-to-date: take the time to install those free updates and security patches when they’re released. Here too, you may want to enable your settings so that these updates are installed automatically.
  • Make sure that the web site that you are visiting has a SSL (Secure Socket Layer) certificate i.e. GeoTrust, Thawte or VeriSign. There are other companies that do so. The SSL certificates offer an encrypted link between the website and the server to ensure security. Clients on Safe Shopping Network all display secure testing certificates. These sites carry a 100% score in safety.
  • SSL encrypted sites are typically indicated with a padlock icon and a web site address that begins with “https:” instead of “http:”.

Share payment information only with known or reputable vendors

The single best thing you can to do protect yourself is to be careful about who you’re giving your payment details to. If you’re not entirely sure whether the retailer you’re visiting is reliable, do some research to verify its authenticity and security.

Or use a third-party payment processor instead of giving your payment information directly to the online store. Most accept payment from trusted third-party processors, such as PayPal or Google Checkout. This limits the risk of your payment details getting into the wrong hands, because it is ultimately handled by fewer online entities.

Use a credit card instead of a debit card

Credit cards can be the safer choice for online shopping. If someone manages to intercept your financial information online, they can do less damage and you have more recourse than if you’d used a debit card. This is for two reasons:

  • Credit cards have spending limits, while debit cards—which are directly linked to your bank account—do not.
  • You can dispute fraudulent charges made to a credit card without being out-of-pocket the amount in dispute, but money withdrawn directly from your checking account by a debit card is much more difficult to recover.

Consider using a credit card with a low credit limit specifically for your online purchases. Some banks now offer “one-time use” or “virtual” credit cards that are designed specifically for online shopping—these are good only for one transaction from a specific vendor.

Print or save a copy of your orders

It’s always a good idea to keep documentation of your online purchases. Most retailers will send you an email or refer you to a web page with a confirmation of your purchase; this page should include a purchase receipt and a confirmation number. Print or save the confirmation and keep it until you receive your product.

Use strong passwords

Often, one of the most critical security steps is the one we give the least attention to—our passwords. Passwords can be the best security defenses we have, but if they’re not created properly, a hacker can easily guess them. For any online shopping accounts you have, be sure to create good passwords. 

Tips for creating a strong password

  • Use long passwords. The longer your password is, the better. Use a password that has at least 8 characters, and for your high-security accounts, security experts recommend even longer passwords: at least 14 characters. (How can you remember 14 characters? See “Consider building passwords based on phrases” below for some ideas.)
  • Mix it up. Use a mix of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols—the more types of characters you use in your password, the harder it is to guess.To illustrate: For an 8-character password with all lowercase letters, a cracking tool would be able to run through every possible combination in 2.42 days. By mixing in uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols, the tool would take 210 years to run through every combination.
  • Use text that’s not in a dictionary. A password cracking program can check millions of dictionary words in seconds. Avoid “real” words that can be found in a dictionary.
  • Change passwords regularly. Change your passwords on a regular basis. Every 60-90 days is the recommendation of most security advisors; you may want to change them more or less often depending on the security of the information the password is protecting.

Check your statements often

To ensure that no unknown or fraudulent charges have been posted to your accounts, check your statements every month. If you see a charge that looks out of the ordinary, report it to your credit card company or financial institution immediately.

Remember: If it looks too good to be true…

The old-fashioned shopper’s rule of thumb “buyer beware” still applies to online purchases. If you’re being offered a top-of-the-line item for an unbelievably rock-bottom price, it may really be too good to be true. Do additional research about the vendor before buying. At very least, check for a phone number and street or mailing address so that if there are any problems with your order, you have someone to contact.

We at Safe Shopping Network hope between our tips a and our tested Safe Shopping Websites listed in the Safe Shopping Network directory will help you make a better decision on where to shop at online.