Smart Buying

5 Tips for Safe Online Shopping

Follow these tips to protect your personal information while buying gifts this year.

Shopping online is a great way to find deals (as I wrote recently). But, if you're not careful, you could be putting your personal information at risk of being stolen by identity thieves.

Michael Gregg, a cyber security consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the federal government, says the volume of attacks that target Internet users has been on the rise this year. However, he says there are several steps you can take to protect yourself while shopping -- or doing anything -- online.

1. Never shop online from a public Wi-Fi connection. Hackers can tap into Wi-Fi connections at hotspots, such as coffee shops, airports and hotels, to capture your personal information. If you must use public Wi-Fi, you can download for free the AnchorFree HotSpot Shield to hide your IP address while you're online and protect your computer from snoopers. Also, never use a public computer to shop or check accounts online.

2. Don't use your smartphone to shop. Hackers can use the same tactics for tapping into your smartphone as they use for your laptop or PC.

3. Don't use your debit card for online shopping. If hackers steal your debit-card information and raid your bank account, you must report any misuse within two days to get the same $50 limited liability as you would with a credit card. Miss that deadline but report your loss within 60 days and you could be liable for up to $500. After 60 days, your liability is unlimited. If you don't like using credit cards, though, consider using EBillme to make secure cash payments when shopping online (see Shop Online ... With Cash).

4. Shop online only at known retailers. Don't let a search engine pick a site for you because it could be bogus, Gregg says. Even if you're using a site that you think is legitimate, look for security labels, such as VeriSign and Cybertrust, and for https:// to appear in the url on pages that prompt you to enter personal information. Also consider downloading McAfee's free SiteAdvisor, which tests sites for dangerous downloads, spamming and more.

5. Don't click on pop-up ads. Hackers recently have posted bogus ads with malicious software on legitimate sites (NYTimes.com, for example). Online retailers will be susceptible to these attacks, Gregg says.

And remember, keep your guard up even when you're shopping in stores this holiday season. Thieves can easily snatch your wallet -- see My Wallet Was Stolen: 4 Lessons Learned.

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