Tips to stay safe while holiday shopping online!

Woman makes online holiday purchase

With only 18 shopping days until Christmas, if you’re anything like me, you’re in full blown gift buying mode. I even dragged my husband to Coralville Mall last Saturday, much to his dismay. What’s worse than dragging your husband to a crazy-busy mall on a Saturday before the biggest shopping holiday of the year? Leaving empty handed.

“Ehh, they were out of her size. I’ll just buy it online.” “I’m not sure if he already has this book. Once his mom calls me back, I’ll just order it online.” “That line is too long. I’ll just go online to get that gift card.”

Well, it looks like my Christmas shopping took a turn for the information super highway.

According to the folks at comScore, I’m not alone. They say that over $13.55 billion has been spent online in the US during the 2010 holiday season to date  and that the number of online buyers grew by 4% from last year. Shopping online has an obvious appeal: No lines, no parking lot misery, better inventory, an absence of uber-pushy salespeople and I can shop while wearing my comfy pink sweatpants. Everyone wins! However, buying anything on the internet comes with a risk – the potential of identity theft.

I chatted with Linn Area Credit Union’s Fraud Specialist Liz to get her tips for a safer online shopping experience:

Before you even get started…

  • Secure your computer: Ensure that your computer has up-to-date anti-virus and anti-spyware software and firewall. Use the latest version of your web browser and set it to the highest level. (Need help finding the latest version of your web browser? Email us here and we’d be happy to help.) 
  • Isolate the spending: Get a credit card just for using online so you can monitor transactions easily. This credit card should not be associated with your debit card. Check out our rock star credit cards here.  (Liz’s tip: If it comes out of your checking account, it could mess up your account balance if the store places a hold on a larger amount than the total of your purchase or if you happen to get charged multiple times.) 
  • Keep Paypal your pal: Set up a Paypal account (click here) and use it whenever possible while shopping online. Be sure to check the accounts that Paypal debits from frequently to quickly detect fraud.
  • Be strict about passwords: Use a different password for each site on which you have an account; do not allow your browser to store passwords for you. We recommend that you use a combination of letters and numbers. (Liz’s tip: It’s always a good idea to change up your passwords on a regular basis!) 

Now that you’re ready to shop…

  • Go straight to the site: Type a store’s Web address directly into your web browser instead of using a search engine to retrieve it. Cybercriminals plant malicious links that look like popular sites within the first few pages of search results. (Liz’s tip: This also counts for coupons that are emailed to you. Don’t use the links within the email. Ever.) 
  • Do your research: If you’re buying from an unknown retailer, be sure to check reviews, their address and verify the landline number you can contact them on. (Liz’s tip: A quick Google search for reviews on an unknown retailer can save you A LOT of hassle later.) 
  • Look for the “signs of security”: On sites where you’re making a financial transaction, look for “https” in the address bar and a padlock icon in the web browser Status Bar. On sites where the retailer uses extended SSL validation, look for the address bar to turn green on secured pages.

Before you purchase your items…

  • Know the return policy like the back of your hand: Make sure you know the store’s policies and procedures. How long do you have to return the product if you’re not happy with it? 14 days? 30 days? Keep in mind that with slow holiday shipping, if the store has a 14 day return policy, it’s possible you may not receive the product before the 14 day return window expires. (Liz’s tip: I find that online retailers who also have brick and mortar stores tend to be the easiest to work with on returns.) 
  • Keep your eye on that receipt: Once you buy your item, you’ll want to print out the receipt. This gives you a sales confirmation, which is the best way to protect yourself in case the vendor tries to charge more or something goes wrong with delivery.

Aren’t we done yet? Nope, while you wait for your goodies to arrive…

  • Watch for seasonal scams: Be wary of spam emails claiming to be shipping confirmation or undeliverable package alerts that require you to open an attachment. Delete any message that claims to contain tracking information, but which lacks a tracking number in either the subject or body of the message. The safest way to track a package is through the shipper’s Web site or the online store where you made the purchase.

A big thanks to Liz for all of her helpful tips! I think I’m ready to tackle the rest of my shopping! Goodbye, long lines! Helloooo, sweatpants!

So tell us in the comments below – are you doing most of your shopping in the stores or online this year???