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5 tips for safe online shopping

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Cybercrimes are a common issue when shopping online — but there are ways to protect yourself. Sarayut/Getty Images

In the first quarter of 2024 alone, U.S. retail e-commerce sales totaled nearly $300 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But as popular as online shopping has become, there are also increasing risks to consider, as cybercriminals are constantly looking for ways to steal money and conduct identity theft.

In 2023, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center received a 10% increase in complaints from the American public, totaling 880,418, with potential losses of over $12.5 billion, a 22% increase from the year prior. But while there are a range of cybercrimes to worry about when shopping online, there are also ways to reduce the risks. 

And that starts with using a combination of common sense practices and technology. Here's what you should know.

Find out how LifeLock can help protect your identity online now.

5 tips for safe online shopping

Consider the following five tips for safer online shopping:

Do your research

Part of the fun of online shopping is discovering new products from new retailers, but you want to keep your guard up if you're buying from a site you're not familiar with. One safe online shopping tip from the National Council on Aging is to review the Better Business Bureau (BBB) listings for these online companies. If an e-commerce site was set up to scam people, for instance, then you might see a lot of BBB complaints.

Sometimes online shopping involves buying from accounts through social media sites. In that case, you might take steps like seeing if they have verified profiles, as well as reading customer reviews.

Find out how LifeLock helps you fight back against online identity theft.

Review site security features

You should also review site security features, such as checking to see whether a website starts with https, which means the site encrypts information, explains the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

But even if you think you know the site, you should still look for this information, as well as a padlock icon next to the URL, which serves as another security indicator. That's because you might have made a mistake, like typing one wrong letter, that leads to a phishing site. These types of sites look legitimate but have been set up to commit credit card theft or identity theft

Be careful what you click on

One of the biggest dangers of online shopping is that you'll fall victim to a phishing attack, which typically starts with an email claiming to be from a retailer or shipping company about your order. When you click on the link, though, the email takes you to a site that asks you to input information, like your bank or credit card numbers, which goes directly to cybercriminals, for example.

So, it's important to be careful about any links you click on, not only through email but also other channels, like social media platforms and pop-up ads. If you're not sure of the validity, try going directly to the source. For example, instead of following the link in an email about your supposed Amazon order, go directly to your Amazon account from your web browser to check the status of that order.

That said, accidents happen, and it can be hard to always know what's safe or not. In turn, it can be helpful to have backup. Using a service like LifeLock can improve your online shopping privacy while also giving you the protections you may need in case you do become a victim of identity theft or credit card theft. For example, LifeLock Ultimate Plus memberships provide up to $1 million in stolen funds reimbursement. 

Use a VPN

Another way to reduce the risks of online shopping is to use a reputable virtual private network (VPN) provider for browsing online, especially if you're using a public Wi-Fi network.

As the National Cybersecurity Alliance explains, public networks, like those at cafes or airports, aren't very secure. If using these networks while online shopping, it's possible that a bad actor would be able to digitally see you input your credit card information, for example, and that could enable them to use that data themselves. But connecting via a VPN can help you gain more privacy if you need to complete an order while out.

Here too, LifeLock can help, as memberships come with VPN access.

Consider your payment method

When it's time to complete your order, think twice about how you pay for the purchase.

One way to reduce the risks of online shopping is to pay by credit card, as the FTC suggests. That's because you have the right to dispute credit card charges, and you might face less liability for fraudulent purchases compared to some other payment methods.

If you want to go a step further, you can use a virtual credit card number, which many credit card companies offer. That way, if the virtual card number gets exposed, at least your main credit card number can remain unknown. Virtual credit cards can also have lower spending limits, which can limit the fallout of a breach.

Lastly, be mindful of situations where an online store asks for a specific, niche payment method and won't accept others. Asking for payment using gift cards or wire transfers is a red flag that means you shouldn't go through with the transaction, according to the FBI's Portland, Oregon field office.

The bottom line

Online shopping can be fun, but it also can be risky. To reduce the chances of financial fallout due to issues like online shopping scams or data breaches, it helps to follow these best practices. It can also help to use safer online shopping technology and identity monitoring services in conjunction, like those from LifeLock.

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