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Tips for keeping personal information safe when shopping online

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By Cameron Huddleston
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 6:21 PM

Shopping online can be a great way to avoid the crowds, compare prices with ease and find deals. But it can also put you at risk of becoming a victim of identity theft if you don't take the proper precautions. To keep your personal information safe, here are things you should avoid doing shopping online.

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Blindly clicking into unfamiliar sites. If you're looking for a particular item, go to a well-known price-comparison site, such as PriceGrabber.com or Dealio.com. Don't let a search engine pick a site for you because hackers seed search results with fraudulent sites, says Jon-Louis Heimerl, director of strategic security for security-services company Solutionary. 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.

Assuming you have the same protections with debit as credit. If a hacker steals your debit-card information and raids 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.

Not monitoring your accounts. If you do a lot of shopping online, review your credit-card statements regularly to make sure there aren't any unauthorized purchases.

Shopping 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. That's why you should never shop online using a public Wi-Fi connection. Also, never use a public computer to shop or check accounts online.

Billing directly to your smart phone. Use a credit card instead of having purchases billed through your mobile carrier, because the card provides more security. If someone gets your credit-card information and goes on a spending spree, your liability is capped at $50 (Visa and MasterCard assume all liability for unauthorized purchases). Also, if you have a dispute with a merchant, you may have an easier time working out a solution.

Wiring money to pay for an item. If you purchase an item from an online auction site, such as eBay, and the seller asks you to wire your payment, don't do it. Heimerl says wiring money is inviting yourself to a fraud situation - you have no way to get your money back if the item you purchase never arrives.

Clicking a link in an unsolicited e-mail. Don't ever click on a link in an unsolicited e-mail to go shopping, even if the e-mail looks as if it came from a legitimate retailer, Heimerl says. You're safer going directly to a retailer's site to see whether it's having a sale rather than clicking on a link that could take you to a fraudulent site.

Clicking URLs on social-networking sites. Using Twitter can be a smart way to stay on top of deals, but you have to make sure the deals are legit. The URLs on Twitter (and sometimes Facebook) are often shortened, so you don't know whether you're going to land on a legitimate retailer's site by clicking the link. Heimerl says to use a deal notification you see on Twitter as a tip, then find sales on your own.

- Kiplinger's Personal Finance


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