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Ask the Experts

Is It Safe to Shop on My Smartphone?

Yes, but only if you follow these safe-surfing steps

En español | Q. I'm thinking about using my smartphone to buy holiday gifts because it's easy and I don't have to go from store to store in a mall. But is it safe?

A. Making purchases on a smartphone that's connected to a public Wi-Fi network, like at a coffee shop or airport, could lead to the theft of your credit card numbers and personal information.

See also: Beef up your smartphone security.

How to shop safely on smart phones - photo of woman shopping at store window with phone

Minimize the risk when using your smartphone to shop. — Photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Here's how to minimize the risk:

  •  Make sure your phone's security and antivirus software are updated.
  • Don't shop on unsecure Wi-Fi networks. Many public systems have no encryption — hackers can intercept your data. For safe surfing, look for "WPA" or "WPA2" on your smartphone's screen, which indicate that your data will be scrambled.
  • Avoid unfamiliar websites. Identity thieves may set up fake sites to snare your personal information. If you've never heard of a website before, go elsewhere to make a purchase.
  • Insist on security at your shopping site. Make sure the site's browser status bar has a padlock icon, signifying security for transactions. The address of a secure site starts with "https" rather than "http" — the "s" means secure.
  • Use complex passwords. Choose passwords with letters, numbers and symbols that are easy for you to remember but difficult for thieves to guess.
  • Monitor your credit card statements. Check them each month, or more often, to make sure that all purchases showing up on your account are correct. Also check your credit reports to look for fraudulent activity.

Having said all that, know that it's probably safest to shop at home using your own secure network. And you'll never have to get out of your pajamas and slippers.

The Federal Trade Commission's website provides more information about identity theft, including a form to report it.

Also of interest: Save money with your smartphone. >>

Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.

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