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5 Tips for Safer Online Holiday Shopping

Make sure your goods get delivered and your credit cards aren’t compromised

woman shopping online from her couch

Tetra Images/Getty Images

Love online shopping? You’re not alone.

More than three-quarters of Americans have shopped online, and that includes about two-thirds of adults age 45 and older, according to a May 2018 NPR/Marist Poll. 

This year, with online sales projected to increase by nearly $50 billion to almost $550 billion, according to research company Statista, some of those who haven’t tried e-commerce may decide to jump in.

After all, you don’t have to fight traffic to drive to the mall and circle the parking lot. Online stores are open 24-7, and you can shop in your pajamas. Comparing prices among multiple online retailers is easy; product selection is vast, including items sold outside the country; and purchases are shipped right to your door.

But nondelivery of goods purchased and nonpayment for items bought continues to be the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center’s top grievance for the fifth year in a row and resulted in $184 million in losses last year.

To ensure your own smooth online shopping experience, follow these best practices:

1. Look for the lock

Always use a secure internet connection when making a purchase. Reputable websites use technologies such as SSL, which stands for secure socket layer, that encrypt data during transmission.

You will see a little lock icon on your browser and usually “https” at the front of your address bar to confirm a secure connection.

And don’t use free public Wi-Fi hot spots like those in your favorite coffee shop. They put your information at risk, especially if you’re typing in a password and credit card number.

Experts consider it safer to use a store’s or marketplace’s app instead of a website because it’s less prone to intrusion.

2. Pay securely

Shop only on sites that take secure payment methods, such as PayPal, which is electronically linked to your credit card or bank account, and credit cards.

Why? Both options offer buyer protection in case of a dispute, such as not receiving an item, or if what’s in the box is not what you ordered. Always check a store’s return policy, too.

Be suspicious if a store is asking for cash, a check or a direct debit from your bank account. When shopping at an unfamiliar merchant site, look for some sort of security seal of approval, such as Better Business Bureau, DigiCert or VeriSign.

Buyer beware

Online shopping is safe as long as you take a few precautions and exercise a bit of common sense. If you see something that looks too good to be true, it probably is.

When in doubt:

1. Compare the product with other shopping sites to see if the price is significantly lower.

2. Ensure you’re getting a new — not used — item, which might account for the lower price.

3. Investigate the authenticity of the brand. The item could be a knockoff. Double-check your online store, especially if it’s your first time there, for reliability.

3. Update your software; be vigilant

Whether you shop on a desktop, laptop, smartphone or tablet, always keep the operating system up to date in case cybercriminals are exploiting a weakness they’ve uncovered in the software. Also use a good program to fight malware — malicious software — that includes antivirus protection and a firewall.

Never click on a link in an email or text message that appears to be from a bank, credit card issuer or retailer asking you to confirm your financial details. If you’re unsure whether an email or a link within it is legitimate, contact the company directly via an email address you already have or find on its website, or phone or use its site’s chat feature.

Many online shoppers smartly use a virtual private network, better known as a VPN, to browse the web anonymously.

4. Do your homework

When on marketplaces such as eBay, be sure to check a seller’s reputation and read comments before buying a product. Previous customers can be a good predictor of future shopping experiences.

Also, don’t forget the top tip to help you avoid many kinds of fraud: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Your Facebook friends may innocently share misleading deals around this time of year. And no, you won’t find a brand-new iPhone 11 for $300.

If you’re buying from someone locally through an online classifieds site like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Kijiji, Letgo or OfferUp, be sure to meet in a public place and inspect the item before you hand over the cash.

5. Use strong passwords

A good password is at least seven characters long and includes letters, numbers and symbols. Or use a pass phrase, which is a long string of words together, and include a number and symbol, too.

For example, the sentence “My dog Bella has a birthday October 19!” could be used to create a pass phrase like “MdBhab019!”

Never use the same passwords for all your online activity. If one account were breached, the bad guys would have access to all your services.

Change those passwords regularly. A password manager app is a good idea to keep everything secured and in one place.

Marc Saltzman has been a freelance technology journalist for 25 years. His podcast, Tech It Out, aims to break down geek speak into street speak.

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