As easy as it is to get online and browse the internet from the comfort of your couch or at a restaurant with a phone, it isn’t an anonymous experience.
Online thieves and even people looking over your shoulder can steal your identity and personal information, especially when you’re shopping for holiday gifts online and your credit card information is given to a retailer.
With the information they steal, criminals used to mostly make counterfeit credit cards, but the introduction of more secure microchipped cards in 2015 in the United States slowed that crime. They now focus on new account fraud, such as using a victim’s name and other stolen personal information to open a credit card or other financial account in the victim’s name. Tax fraud is also common.
It all adds up to a lot of stolen money. Identity thieves stole $16 billion from 15.4 million U.S. consumers in 2016, according to the 2017 Identity Fraud Study by Javelin Strategy & Research.
How can you protect your identity from being stolen while shopping for holiday gifts online? Here are a few ways:
Only shop on websites protected by Secure Sockets Layer, or SSL, encryption. Instead of the standard HTTP page, you’ll see HTTPS before a site’s address telling you that it has a level of encryption that makes is safer to use your credit card number or other sensitive information there.
The “HTTPS” in the address bar will tell you if the site is secure. Some browsers also show a padlock and say “Secure” when SSL is used.
VPN, not public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi is free and easy to find when you’re out shopping, but don’t use it when buying anything online or using your bank account online. It isn’t as secure as private Wi-Fi or a cellular data connection.
If you’re going to use public Wi-Fi when shopping, use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, for extra security.
For a few dollars per month, you can buy a VPN connection that acts as an encrypted tunnel between your computer or phone and the internet — even a public Wi-Fi connection. The VPN blocks anyone from seeing the information you’re sending and receiving and can make it look like you’re in another country or area of the U.S. when shopping.
Having weak passwords for harmless apps you use is bad enough, since thieves can also steal any personal information on those sites, but you should have strong passwords when shopping online.
You can use one of the many password management apps to come up with and store your passwords securely, or create strong passwords yourself with capital letters, numbers and symbols.
Run anti-malware software
Before shopping, scan your computer with an antivirus and anti-malware software to clean it from any infected malware. Without it, you could be vulnerable to malware that can take a credit card number you enter on a website and give it to someone.
Pay with a credit card
Some retailers allow debit cards to be used, which can help you keep your holiday spending down by only spending money you have in the bank. Debit cards, however, have much less fraud protections than credit cards, and should be avoided when shopping online.
If your credit card information is stolen and used to buy things by a crook, you’ll only be responsible for the first $50 if you report it. If you report a debit card loss within 60 days of your statement being mailed, you could lose up to $500 in unauthorized transfers without being reimbursed by the bank.
If you don’t want to pay with a credit card while shopping online, you can pay with PayPal to withdraw money from your bank account, among other services.
Avoid fake shopping apps
You may have received emails appearing to be legitimate companies. Or, you may be stumbled upon fake shopping sites or apps that look real but aren’t, and are only there to skim your information.
If a company that you trust and have done business with before all of a sudden sends you an email asking you to log in to change your password, don’t click on the link. Instead, go to the site you already know and see if it still checks out as legitimate.
A fake company website or email may have a lot of misspelled words, blurry logos, or a number of things that pop out as unusual to you. Avoid them.
If you’re shopping at a website where you’ve never bought from before, check out what review sites say about it. If the site isn’t secure and something seems fishy, go away.
Don’t tell them everything
Your credit card number and shipping information is all a retailer needs to send you a package you ordered. It doesn’t need your date of birth, sex, income level. It surely doesn’t need your Social Security number.
The business may not be legit, but even if it is, there isn’t a valid reason why it needs more information than how you’re paying and your address. Search the website’s name and “review” or “legit” to help verify if it’s a good website.
If you still want to proceed and the site doesn’t offer the option of leaving your birthdate empty, then make one up. You can also create an email address just for signing up for things.