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Online safety tips to know before you click the "buy" button

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Thanks to technology it’s never been easier to find the best gifts for everyone on your list. Just remember to take several precautions before submitting your credit card information to nab that fabulously priced sweater -- or the purchase could lead to a financial mess that will last long after the holidays are over.

“Vigilance is key,” said Mike Cetera, an analyst at Bankrate.com, a provider of consumer financial news and advice.  

-- Don’t use debit cards to make online purchases. Credit cards offer more protections against any problems.

'tis the season for fake retail apps

-- Make sure the site has security measures. Look for an image of a lock in the site’s address in the web browser. That signifies it has protections to safeguard data.

-- Don’t be tempted by prices that seem too good to be true when offered on unfamiliar sites. It could be a scam. Stick to shopping at sites from stores with a big brick-and-mortar presence or Amazon.com, Cetera said.

-- Be careful when buying merchandise from sellers on eBay, Etsy and similar outlets where you are purchasing items sold by individuals or very small businesses. Check out the sellers’ ratings by other shoppers, and look for a freestanding website. That can help determine their legitimacy. “I don’t want to scare people against those sites but there are bad actors out there,” Cetera said.  

-- Check your credit card statement after giving your information to a little-known vendor and report any problems to the issuer immediately. And monitor your credit reports. The three big rating companies—Experian, TransUnion and Equifax-- must provide consumers with one free report annually. Mr. Cetera said monthly credit card statements and credit reports should be thoroughly reviewed throughout the year, not just during the holidays.

-- Don’t let any site save your credit card information, even those big stores where you shop regularly. “You are now ceding info to another company and you lose control,” Cetera explained. Even sites from the most reputable retailers can be breached and customers may not learn about the problem until it is too late. The Identity Theft Resource Center (www.idtheftcenter.org) tracks breaches and is a good place to consult if you have stored your information at a site.

-- Don’t use public Wi-Fi to purchase products or check your bank account. Use your phone instead because the network is considered more secure.

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