This Tip was first run in Dec 2006 when forecasters were predicting the biggest online holiday shopping season ever. Amazingly, that forecast is still true - the volume of online shopping continues to rise (though perhaps not quite as dramatically as in previous years). This "encore tip" is a reminder to shop safely during the holiday season.
Last year was the busiest online shopping year in history – and this year looks like it will be even busier. Shopping online is a convenience that we are quickly learning to take for granted. At the same time, identity theft is a steadily more serious threat. There are some risks you should consider, especially when making purchases over the Internet.
- When shopping online, type the merchant's URL in by hand instead of following any "convenient" link in an email or instant message. Those links can be spoofed in a phishing attack which looks like legitimate advertising.
- Look for the prefix https in the address line. This indicates that you are on an encrypted connection to the merchant's website. You can also look for the little yellow padlock icon in the bottom right of the browser. Be careful, however. Sophisticated hackers can spoof these signs.
- Make sure your own protections (anti-virus, firewall, patches) are up-to-date and running.
- Use a credit card, not a debit card. If your credit card is stolen or the number misused, federal law limits your liability to $50 (as long as you comply with the notification requirements). If a debit card number is compromised, you could lose the entire amount in the account to which the debit card is linked.
- Check your statement carefully for charges you don't recognize. Report any anomalies to your bank and report a lost or stolen card immediately.
- Consider keeping a separate credit card with a low credit limit just for internet purchases.
Remember that these rules apply when you are paying by telephone, too. You should always call the merchant (or utility, charity, etc). Never give someone your financial information if they called you. No matter who they say they are, you don't really know who's on the other end of that line.
Shopping online can be as safe as shopping in a physical store or through a catalog as long as you shop responsibly.