I’ll admit it – I’m a shopping addict. But the last place you’ll see me, if I can help it, is at a shopping mall or retail store. I’m an online shopper and greatly prefer it for its convenience, ability to provide endless options and the freedom it allows me to browse and comparison shop. But online shopping is not without its risks. There are several landmines when shopping on the web that you don’t have to worry about with an actual storefront.

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Online Shopping Tips

Protect yourself from these risks and enjoy your online shopping experience by following these seven tips:

1. Make sure the website is secure.

If you’re going to enter your personal information and credit card numbers over the Internet, it’s important to make sure the website you’re shopping on is taking measures to protect that data. There are several ways to check if a Website is secure:

  • Security logos: Credible, third-party endorsements from Web security companies like Verisign indicate that a site has been certified as secure. Look for the Verisign logo on your favorite shopping sites and click on it to make sure it links to a real certificate in the company’s name.
  • HTTPS: A website address that starts with HTTPS instead of HTTP means the website is secure. Look for this in your browser address bar when a website asks you for your personal information.
  • A browser lock: Some web browsers, like Internet Explorer, will display an image of a lock in its status bar to indicate that a site is secure. Keep in mind, however, that a lock displayed by your browser is different than a lock displayed on a website. Just because a site has an image of a lock on it, doesn’t mean it’s secure.

2. Pay with a credit card.

The safest way to pay for purchases online is with a credit card. If you don’t receive an item you ordered or are unsatisfied with it, you can dispute the charge with your credit card company if you’ve made a good faith attempt to resolve the dispute with the seller. Or if someone makes an unauthorized charge on your credit card, your responsibility is limited to $50.

Some credit cards offer other perks and warranties too that make it a smart tool in your online shopping arsenal. You won’t get these protections if you pay by cash or check. There are some debit cards that offer similar protections as credit cards, so if you prefer using debit, make sure these protections are in place before you shop with it.

3. Navigate to the website yourself.

Some thieves use a tactic known as phishing to obtain your personal information. Phishing is when someone pretends to be a company, financial institution or government body and sends you an email requesting your personal information. Sometimes, the email will direct you to an official-looking website, where it will ask you for your personal details.

Phishing is a scam and is one of the leading causes of identity theft. That’s why it’s important to go directly to a Website yourself when shopping online and not from links in an email. Or if you do click on a link in a familiar email, make sure you recognize the Web address of the site to which you’re directed before you hand over your personal info.

4. Don’t shop on public computers.

When you enter personal information on a public computer, you’re putting yourself at risk for identity theft. Hackers can easily break into unsecured networks and steal information. In addition, many computers save personal information entered into a form as a convenience. This might be convenient at home on your personal computer, but it’s a big risk on a public computer. If you have the urge to splurge, wait until you get home to do it.

5. Keep your Social Security Number confidential.

You may have to fork over personal information like your address, phone number and credit card number to purchase something online, but you should not give out your Social Security Number (SSN) — and no shopping site should request that. Identity thieves can use your SSN to apply for credit in your name and commit other forms of fraud that will cause a major headache for you.

A Social Security Number is unnecessary for just about all purchases anyway, including financial products like credit reports. If a company requires your SSN to buy something, find another site that doesn’t and go with them. Your identity will thank you.

6. Keep your software up to date.

Another way to reduce your vulnerability against hackers and identity thieves online is to install software updates — particularly for your web browser — as soon as they become available. Many of these updates will protect your computer against the latest viruses and other known problems that can leave your personal information open to theft.

7. Make use of promotional codes before buying.

This tip isn’t about security, rather getting the best deal. Before you finalize any purchase online, always check online coupon sites, e.g., Ebates or FatWallet first. These sites house countless coupons and promotional codes that you can legitimately use when purchasing items online to get a discount, free shipping or other helpful perks. Make visiting these sites part of your shopping experience and you’ll enjoy big savings.

Online shopping is meant to be quick, easy and convenient. Keep it that way by exercising a touch of caution and using other online tools to make the most of your shopping experience.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.