Some precautions to help ensure a safe and hassle-free experience while you shop online
November 21, 2012 5:00 AM
By Patricia Sabatini Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
No lines. No crowds. No playing chicken for a parking spot. It's hard to beat holiday shopping online for the convenience and solitude.
Still, dangers lurk in cyberspace, especially for the uninitiated -- from crooks poised to steal your personal data to shady retailers selling inferior products.
While that shouldn't scare shoppers off, there are some precautions to consider to help ensure a safe and hassle-free experience.
"It's kind of like when you are driving. There are multiple things you have to do to stay safe," said George Otte, CEO and founder of Geeks on Site, a computer technology support company based in Miami.
Mr. Otte and other experts, including PNC Bank and the National Crime Prevention Council, offered these tips for shopping safely online:
• Shop at home. Avoid shopping online on public computers and WiFi networks at libraries, cybercafes, hotels, airports and the like because they are less secure and more prone to hackers. Also avoid sharing sensitive information while logged onto a public network. You never know who might be watching.
• Before surfing the Internet, update your security software. Install anti-virus, anti-spyware and anti-spam software, as well as a good firewall. And make sure to update the browser, such as Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome or Internet Explorer, with the latest available version.
• Use your credit card, not your debit card. The biggest advantage of using a credit card is the right to stop payment if goods weren't delivered as promised. The credit card company steps in to mediate the dispute with the merchant. In contrast, debit card purchases are more like using cash. The money is gone, and it's up to the customer to deal with the seller if there is a problem.
Credit cards also offer an advantage in the event of fraud. Nearly all issuers have zero liability policies so customers aren't on the hook for unauthorized transactions. While most debit card issuers also fully reimburse customers hit by fraud, it can take a couple of weeks to investigate and replenish the account. In the meantime, the customer is out the money.
• Shop from known retailers' websites. To ensure that you haven't been switched to a scam or spoofed website, verify the website address in the address bar of the browser. A spoofed site will have a different address, possibly similar, but spelled slightly differently.
• Use secure websites for purchases. Look for the locked padlock icon at the bottom of the screen or "https" in the URL address.
• Click with care. Be cautious of flashing "special offers" and pop-ups, especially when the click redirects you to an unexpected website. Don't provide personal data on a site that you can't confirm is secure.
• Be smart with passwords. Avoid using personal information as PINs or passwords, such as birthdays, names and account numbers. Don't use the same password for multiple sites.
• Guard personal data. Don't respond to unsolicited email requests to "verify" your password, credit card information or other personal data.
• Don't save your information online. Saving your name, address and credit card number at a shopping site might be convenient for your next purchase, but that puts your personal information at risk in the event of a data breach.