How to Shop Online Safely

Ah, the wonderful world of online shopping. ​So much to see, so much to buy, from basic necessities to things you didn’t even know you need… and probably don’t.

Online shopping offers consumers a host of advantages compared to traditional shopping: there’s no need to fight for a parking spot, you can travel from store to store with just a few clicks or taps, and it’s easy to compare prices and styles – all from the comfort of your chair. In addition, online shopping lets you find great deals on the Internet while you browse and socialize at the same time.

But online shopping can leave you vulnerable, whether it’s your personal data or your credit card info. Here are a few tips for how to shop online safely.

How to Shop Online Safely: Making Payments

One of the biggest vulnerabilities you face is when making payments online. And no one wants their card info or identity stolen just because they bought something from Amazon.

There’s two main ways to avoid this: know your merchant and use HTTPS.

Know Your Merchant

Always spend a few minutes doing some research about the website that you are thinking of transacting with. That slick new product for half the price you’ve seen anywhere else may just be too good to be true. The web is certainly a great retail equalizer, a place where an entrepreneur can have a website as good as much larger competitors, but a polished and slick website may not always be backed up by a legitimate, reputable business.

If you are buying from an online vendor or an e-store on a larger site such as eBay or Amazon, make sure that the vendor has excellent feedback scores based on many transactions.

On other sites, the presence of seals of approval like BBBOnline http://www.bbb.org/online/ may also provide you some comfort that there is an actual business behind the website and that it meets some level of proper business conduct.

Dealing with reputable vendors is also important because your purchase data will be on file with them. Many people don’t think about this, but if the vendor’s systems or customer databases are compromised by hackers, the hackers may gain access to your banking or credit card details together with personal data such as your name, address, telephone number and even birth date, all a gold mine for identity thieves.

Ironically, the information you have been trying so hard to protect from hackers could be disclosed by the sloppy business practices of a third party you entrusted with the same data. Even if the hackers “only” obtain your username and passphrase for that particular account, we have already seen how this can enable them to infiltrate your other accounts, leading to more of your accounts being breached.

The ‘S’ in HTTPS is for Safe

Only engage in financial transactions on websites using a secure connection (sometimes called secure socket layer or SSL). This means that when it comes time for the online transaction, make sure that your web browser’s connection to the ecommerce site is encrypted and that the address starts with https:// (note the ‘s’). Depending on the web browser app you use, a lock icon may also appear either in the web bar or in the status bar at the bottom of the window (see screenshot). An encrypted connection between your device and the merchant’s site helps to ensure that credit card and other details cannot be intercepted in transit.

sreenshot of an https SSL connection displayed in web browser bar
Figure: These highlighted elements displayed in a web browser’s search bar give you confidence that a secure (SSL) connection has been established

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