Holiday Shopping: Ten Steps to Thwart Cyber Pickpockets

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You have filled your basket and applied online coupon codes, but you’re not the only one hoping to score big this holiday season: online criminals are also looking to score great deals by stealing your personal and financial information.

holiday shoppingHere are ten essential steps that everyone should take in order to defend against security breaches from hackers and identity thieves:

  1. Avoid shopping in public wifi hotspots. Hackers can’t steal what hackers can’t see. But if you’re making purchases from a cafe, restaurant, airport, or other spot offering easy access to the Internet, you’re at greater risk of identity theft. That’s because a public wifi  connection leaves you without a layer of encryption against thieves. (Yes, that even includes purchases made from your iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, or other smartphone device when used in a public wifi spot.)
  2. Create strong passwords for your online accounts. This is especially true for your banking and shopping passwords. Use at least eight characters, with a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols.
  3. Stay safe with the s. Look for https (the “s” stands for secure) in the website’s URL, and a closed padlock beside it or in the lower right corner of your browser.
  4. Ignore “too good to be true” deals. Common sense is the key when it comes to online shopping. Red flags of a phony offer include deep, unrealistic discounts or messages laced with grammatical errors. These might be scams trying to elicit your Social Security number or other personal information, or they might be attempts to download a virus on your system.
  5. Do not over-share information. By now you’re probably aware that no one is giving away a free iPad this Christmas, and you likely feel confident you would not fall for that scam. But hackers continue to tempt people with other offers, such as $500 retail gift cards in exchange for filling out basic survey information: this is exactly the sort of personal information that identity thieves can use against you.
  6. Look for visual cues to ensure a solid privacy policy. One measure of retail safety is the VeriSign Trusted Seal, which means that the company you’re purchasing from has taken extra steps to certify online security and customer privacy protection. Additionally, take the extra step and manually type in the web addresses for stores you know and trust; never let a search engine redirect you to a retail website, since it could be a phishing scam.
  7. Avoid paying with a debit card. Unfortunately, a hacker who gains access to your bank account information can drain the rest of your funds before you are even aware it has happened. According to Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, your debit card liability can vary greatly depending on when you notice the unauthorized transaction and is far stickier than a credit-card dispute.
  8. Stick to one credit card. Using just one credit card makes record-keeping easier and gives you the strongest protection. Carole Reynolds, a senior lawyer at the Federal Trade Commission, says the Truth in Lending Act means “consumers’ maximum liability for unauthorized use of their credit card is only $50, and when a card is used online, it’s zero.” (If you plan to purchase from smaller, less-known e-retailers that may lack sophisticated security measures, consider using PayPal, a secure service that shields your credit card number from sellers.)
  9. Monitor your accounts. Check your credit-card statement often for unauthorized purchases, either by looking at your online statement or calling the company directly. Do not wait 30 days for the paper statement to arrive.
  10. Print a copy of each online order. Keep a record of the confirmation number and other transaction details, such as the seller’s or store’s name, along with the price you paid for each item.
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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi’s manager of digital content strategy.