If you’re eager to shop online to snag some of the latest deals, you’re not alone this time of year. But there are some ground rules you need to follow to help safeguard your privacy — and your money.
In this article, I’m going to show you some ways to shop online safely. We’ll also get some tips from money expert Clark Howard.
Why Safe Shopping Is Important Today
U.S. businesses reported 1,291 data breaches in the first three quarters of 2021. That surpasses the number of breaches in all of 2020 according to the Identity Theft Research Center, which tracks cybersecurity incidents.
So let’s go over some ways to shop online safely.
1. Use Familiar Websites
One way you can be sure that your information is protected is if you use websites that you already know and trust.
Be careful about Googling products you want and buying those items from sites you’ve never heard of. Instead, see if you can find those items on the retail sites you most frequently use.
2. Check for ‘Https’
An “https” (hypertext transfer protocol secure) site has what’s called an SSL (secure sockets layer) certificate, which promises a secure connection to the website: a must if you’re going to shop safely.
Google encourages websites to have “https” (note the “s”) in their URLs, but not every website complies.
You can tell if a website is secure by double-clicking on its URL in your internet browser’s web address bar. This will show the site’s complete web address, including whether it begins with “https” (secure) or “http” (not secure).
Alternatively, without clicking on the web address bar, you can quickly tell a site’s security status by noticing if it has a lock icon next to the web address.
In the Google Chrome browser, you’ll see one of three icons that tell you whether the site is secure (lock icon), not secure (circle with the letter “i” inside) or even dangerous (red triangle). See the screenshot below:
3. Shop on a Private Wi-Fi Network
You should use a private Wi-Fi network when you shop. If you’re using your password-protected network at home, you have nothing to worry about.
If you’re out and about and want to shop on your phone by connecting to an open, public Wi-Fi network, know that your data may be at risk.
Here’s how Clark protects himself when he’s on the internet:
“Like so many people today, I have unlimited data on my cell phone. I’m also privileged that my cell phone comes with an unlimited hotspot. Unless I’m at home or work, where I think I can trust the Wi-Fi, I operate off my own hotspot so that I’m not putting myself in the position where I might be exposed and vulnerable.”
4. Never Use a Debit Card
Protect yourself when you shop online by always using a credit card and never a debit card. A debit card doesn’t have the same legal protections that a credit card does.
Because a credit card is tied to your credit line with a bank, any money you charge is borrowed. When you use your debit card, the money comes out of your linked checking account.
If you fall victim to debit card fraud, your checking account can get drained. When that happens, Clark says these bad things can follow:
“You have no money to pay your mortgage, your car loan or to buy gas or food, among other things,” Clark says. “Your checks start bouncing and, depending on your bank or credit union, the institution may not cover the bounced check charges that result from debit card fraud.”
5. Never Store Your Credit Card Information
When you buy an item online, it’s possible that the merchant or your browser will ask to store your payment information. Although this is a convenience, it could also turn into a major headache.
Even if you’ve taken all the precautions to protect your information, data breaches can still occur on the merchant’s end. By not saving your payment information online, you can cut down on your exposure.
As credit bureau Experian puts it, “Even with security measures in place, storing your credit card information online will put you at increased risk of your card information being stolen and criminals using it for fraudulent purchases. Manually entering your card information when you make a purchase reduces the chance of it being compromised.”
Try a Virtual Credit Card Number
Virtual credit cards, which generate random digits for one-time payments, are great protection against fraudsters.
Because of the enhanced security, Clark is a fan of virtual credit cards. “It’s so fantastic to be able to use one-use numbers,” he says. “This eliminates you having to change your number, get a new card and all of that — if somebody has compromised the checkout portion of an online seller’s website.”
Shopping online is a convenient way to get the items you need quickly and — if you take the needed precautions — safely.
If you do happen to fall victim to a scam while shopping online, there are some things you can do.