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Protect Your Personal Information When Shopping Online

We all know not to give out our social security number or other personal information to just anyone who calls. But it's okay online because, well, it's just the computer, right? Wrong!

Shopping online with a credit card is no more or less risky than using it in a store. But you still have to be careful, because you never know who — or what — is following your every move. Furthermore, it's impossible to control if someone hacks into and retrieves your personal information from some corporate database. All this doesn't mean you have to avoid the Internet. But the smart online shopper should make every effort to be secure.

A few precautions can minimize the risks associated with using your credit/debit card online. You don't have to be a computer whiz to be safe.

Start at Home

The first line of defense is the network that your computer or mobile device uses to connect to the Internet. Your home network should always be secure, and can be in a couple quick steps:

  • Always require a password to log on to your wireless or wired home network. This makes it difficult for unauthorized users to get in.
  • Turn on any firewall security functions available on the computer or mobile device. On networks with a router, enable the built-in firewall function.

Be Safe in Public

Public computers are widely available at schools and local libraries. While convenient for checking the weather or reading the news, they're not terribly safe from a privacy standpoint. It's best not to buy things using these computers, or even enter in any private information. Your passwords and credit card information can be — and sometimes are — retrieved. But if you must use a public computer, here are a few safety tips to minimize the risk:

  • Disable the web browser and website feature that saves passwords.
  • Use the web browser's privacy feature to erase your activity as you go.
  • Don't let anyone look over your shoulder, and close all windows and programs when you are done using them.
  • Don't walk away from the public computer before you are completely finished using it.
  • Ask the attendant to clear the computer's cache, temp files and cookies after your session.

Stay Cool in a Hotspot

Wi-Fi hotspots offer free internet access to anyone who can connect. But shopping on your own computer in public can be risky. Here are a few things to do before typing in that credit card number from a couch at the local Starbucks:

  • Turn on the built-in firewall protection that both Microsoft Windows and the Mac OS X provide.
  • Make your folders private and encrypt or password protect any sensitive files on your machine. The public network probably lacks any protections of its own.
  • Disable file and print sharing. Leaving these on makes your machine vulnerable to potential intruders.
  • Disconnect the Wi-Fi on your device when it's not in use to avoid even the slightest exposure to hackers.

Check the Website

Before entering your personal and credit/debit card information, make sure that the website is actually where you intend to be. Here's what to look for when you arrive:

  • Check the name and URL of the site. This step may seem obvious and unnecessary, but many unscrupulous sites count on users who slightly misspell the name of a more popular site. Entering won't take you to
  • Inspect the URL at the top of the browser bar. Does it start with "https," which stands for "Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure"? If so, data encryption is being "baked in" while you're on the site.
  • Look for a trusted service check seal, like Verisign. This means that the site is legitimate. However, you should click on the logo to make sure that it IS real also. A fake site can also carry a fake seal.
  • Look for the padlock icon, which indicates that the site is encrypted. The icon will appear on the web browser itself, not as a graphic on the web page.

Bad Things Happen to Good People

Even if you do everything right, your credit card information may still be vulnerable. Hackers routinely break into company servers and steal customer information. Regularly checking your credit card activity online will reveal any unauthorized transactions much faster than waiting for a monthly statement. A credit card provider may not realize that the 10 first class tickets to Las Vegas charged to your account aren't yours.

If unauthorized charges do show up, act early to limit your liability. In most cases, the amount is limited to $50 for credit cards. Some providers will even waive that, provided you contact them in a timely manner. Debit cards are a different story. There's no charge if you report a problem in advance, and typically you are only liable for $50 if you report it within two business days. After that, you could be liable for up to $500. And after 60 days, you could be liable for the full amount.

Caution is your best defense when shopping online with a credit card. But since problems can develop after a transaction, continued vigilance is also important. Hope for the best and plan for the worst.

Additional Resources

Federal Trade Commission: Credit, ATM and Debit Cards: What to do if They're Lost or Stolen

Trust the Check: Verisign - Trusted Sites - How to Tell if a Site is Secure

Microsoft: Online Privacy and Security - How to Shop Online More Safely

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse: Online Shopping Tips: E-Commerce and You

Microsoft: Safety & Security Center - 4 Safety Tips for Using Wi-Fi

Find out where to go for online shopping deals.

Marshal M. Rosenthal is a technology, gadget and lifestyle writer based on the West Coast.

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