Most Americans shop online for at least some of their holiday needs. Of course, online shopping involves some element of cyber-danger. So, here are 11 tricks to help you stay safe when you shop online this holiday season.

1. Avoid known scams - Make sure to read this article about 14 ways that criminals are trying to steal your money this holiday season. Crooks are experts at what they do--make sure you know how to protect yourself.

2. Never use debit cards online - If they are stolen all the money in your bank account could get wiped out. It is always better to dispute fraudulent charges and not have to lay out money while the fraud is being investigated, than to be out money and have to get the balance in your bank account restored.

3. Use alerts - If your credit card provider offers the ability to set up text or email alerts you should seriously consider taking advantage of those services. Theoretically, it is ideal to have the issuer send you an alert every time a charge is made on your account; from a practical standpoint, however, many of us do not want to receive so many messages, so consider asking to be notified when purchases are made over a certain dollar amount or appear to the issuer to be suspicious. Check your monthly statement for any transactions that you do not recognize.

4. Use one-time, "virtual" credit card numbers when appropriate. Many financial institutions allow you to create--using their website or an app--disposable, onetime virtual credit card numbers that allow you to make a charge to a real credit card account (associated with the virtual number) without having to give out the real number. Users can also specify maximum allowable charge sizes much lower than they would be on the real card. While creating such one-time numbers takes time, and may be overkill when dealing with a reputable vendor with whom you have dealt in the past and in whose information-security practices you have confidence, virtual credit card numbers are a powerful way to defend against potential fraud when dealing with less familiar parties. Besides minimizing risk in case a vendor turns out to be corrupt, virtual credit card numbers offer other benefits; if a merchant is hacked and criminals obtain a virtual credit card number that was previously used, for example, they cannot make charges with it--and attempts at making charges may even help law enforcement track down the source of the stolen card data. Also, please note that while virtual numbers are intended for use online, I have used them for in person transactions as well by printing them out from bank websites--but not all stores accept such payments.

5. Avoid clicking links - Enter the web address (i.e., URLs) of online stores at which you want to shop; do not click links in emails or text messages.

6. Check for encryption - Before entering credit card or other personal information into a web page make sure the site in question is using encryption. Most modern web browsers display "HTTPS" and/or include a lock icon or the like to indicate that encryption is enabled.

7. Do not provide unnecessary sensitive information - Do not provide your Social Security Number to any stores or sellers. They don't need it. If you are applying for credit be careful--see the aforementioned article about holiday season scams for more information.

8. User security software - Make sure there is security software on any device that you use for online shopping--and make sure it is up to date. By device I mean not only laptops, but smartphones and tablets as well.

9. Do not shop over public WiFi. If you must shop when you are not using a trusted network, do it over the cellular system. Public WiFi simply poses too many risks.

10. Do not shop on borrowed or public computers; some websites do not instruct web browsers not to cache credit card data. Your card number et. al. may show up when some other person using the machine later on starts to enter a credit card number. Seriously.

11. If something seems suspicious or too good to be true, don't ignore your instincts.

Happy Holidays and Stay Safe!

Please feel free to discuss this article with me on Twitter. I am at @JosephSteinberg

Published on: Dec 8, 2015
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