It often seems that every good thing on the internet comes at a price. Internet shopping is simple, convenient, and provides access to merchandise that may not be available to you otherwise. Nevertheless, the inevitable downside is that shopping on the internet makes you vulnerable to online thieves looking to steal your money, your identity, or both. That doesn’t mean that you should give up buying online 0r shopping altogether, however. You can buy online with confidence as long as you take steps to protect yourself.

Here Are 13 Helpful Tips To Keep Safe When Buying Online

Our guide provides 13 helpful tips to keep you, your money, and your information safe when buying online.

1. Use Secure Payment Options When Buying Online

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The most secure payment options to use while shopping online are credit cards and online payment services like PayPal. Credit cards are safer than debit cards. Because they aren’t attached to your actual bank account. When you use a credit card, you’re making an agreement to pay at a later date. Whereas if you use a debit card, the money is drawn almost immediately from your bank account. This means that any fraudulent purchases made with your debit card number will be drawn from your bank account. And once that money is gone, it’s very hard to get it back. By contrast, fraudulent charges made to your credit card that are identified and reported early are fairly easy to cancel. Or reverse, with no financial penalty on your part.

PayPal and similar services are secure because the service acts as an intermediary between you and the seller. Which means that in a transaction of this sort, the seller never sees your credit card number or bank account information. If they don’t see it, they can’t appropriate it and use it later.

2. Buy From Trusted Websites When Buying Online

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As a general rule, it is best to buy only from retailers that are already well known and firmly established, such as Target, Best Buy, Amazon, etc. These retailers have been around for years, sometimes decades, and their reputations are firmly established.

Nevertheless, you need to be careful with big-name sites like Amazon and eBay. While Amazon does retail its own merchandise, it also allows third-party sellers to transact through its website. Many of the third-party sellers are legitimate, but some are not. Similarly, while eBay itself has a well-established reputation. Not all the sellers who run auctions are reputable. That’s not to say that you should avoid buying from third-party sellers altogether, but there are steps you should take to protect yourself.

Check the Seller’s Reviews

Look to see what previous buyers have to say about their overall experience with the seller. One or two negative reviews are to be expected. But if many buyers have had a negative experience, you should look elsewhere. Especially if people report the same kind of problems over and over.

Contact the Seller

These websites provide a form to send questions directly to the seller. A reputable seller should get back to you in a timely manner with a clear and specific answer to your question. Some reputable sellers may use templates to answer frequently asked questions. But if the response doesn’t address your question at all, the seller is probably not trustworthy.

Ask Specific Questions About the Return Policy

Before you buy, know what recourse you have with the seller. In the event that you’re not satisfied with your purchase.

Finally, be very certain that the website you’re looking at is. In fact, the actual website of the established company, as explained in the next section.

3. Beware of Phishing Scams When Buying Online

A young woman is overjoyed by message on her tablet computer stating she has won a prize, not realizing it is a scam - buying online

Unfortunately, just because the website looks like it belongs to the established company doesn’t always mean that it does. Some scam artists create fake websites that copy the brand name, logos, etc. of trusted companies. To try to get you to enter your information, which they can then use for fraudulent purposes. You’re most likely to encounter links to phishing sites in emails or social media posts. So be especially cautious about clicking them.

Some phishing websites are laughably inept. But others are so convincing that even the most savvy internet shopper may have difficulty telling the difference.

However, there are some telltale warning signs to look for.

Misspelled Web Addresses

This is a common technique that fraudsters use to lure in unwitting victims. They register a web address that’s similar to the retailer that they’re copying. And create a website based off the real one so that if you’re not paying attention. You might not notice the difference until it’s too late. Fake URLs often include the number “1” in place of the lowercase letter “L,” an “@” sign in the address, or a long string of meaningless characters. Also, look out for the domain name because a legitimate commercial site will rarely end in “.org,” for example. Be sure to check your own spelling as you’re typing the web name into the browser.

Nonstandard English Usage

Legitimate retailers typically use professionally written copy. So typos and other errors will be rare to nonexistent. If the website you’re on has a lot of misspellings or grammatical errors, that’s a red flag that it may be a phishing site.

However, the language used doesn’t necessarily have to be incorrect to indicate that something’s not right. If you know for a fact that the company you’re trying to buy from is based in the United States. The use of British-English spellings (e.g. “colour” for “color”). Or slang (e.g. “soonest” for “right away”) is a warning sign that something is wrong, even though the usage itself is technically correct.

Sloppy Layout

Again, some of these websites are very good at mimicking the real website’s sleek and professional design. But others aren’t so skilled at it. If the website looks sloppy, poorly designed, or hastily put together, that’s a red flag. Also look for pixelation of images and other signs that they might have been photoshopped or otherwise tampered with.

4. Check the Website’s Security When Buying Online

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To determine if the website you’re using is secure, look at the address bar. You should see evidence of a secure sockets layer, a security protocol that encrypts the data as it travels between a web browser and a server. Data that is intercepted in transit will therefore be unusable.

SSL is indicated by an “https” in the web address (rather than “http”). And a locked padlock symbol in the address bar. However, these alone don’t indicate that a website is legitimate. Merely that the connection is secure. Scam artists sometimes use SSL on their fake websites. SSL is an important piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the whole picture.

5. Be Especially Careful on the Go When Buying Online

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Online shopping in your own home with your own internet connection, is one thing; online shopping in public is potentially more dangerous. You’ve probably heard not to enter sensitive information on a public or shared computer, but even connecting your laptop to public Wi-Fi is a risk. If the connection is not secure, the information you send can be intercepted. One way to protect yourself is by using a virtual private network, or VPN.

Shopping using mobile apps can be convenient, but to ensure the app is legitimate, you should download it directly from the company’s website rather than an app store. If it is not available on the company website, check the ratings and reviews first to verify that other customers are satisfied with it.

6. Update Your Software When Buying Online

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Updating your software includes your operating system, web browser, antivirus, etc. The periodic updates provided by the software company can include protection against known threats. It is recommended that you set these programs so that they update automatically. That way you’ll remain protected with minimal effort on your part.

7. Create Strong Passwords Early and Often When Buying Online

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It’s easy to slack off when it comes to creating passwords. You need to remember them, so it’s tempting to create something simple and easy to guess or to use the same password for multiple sites. However, doing so can potentially be as dangerous as handing your house keys to a total stranger. Here’s a refresher on password security and how best to protect yourself.

Consider the Password Strength

While all passwords should be unique, there are several things that strong passwords all have in common:

  1. Length of at least eight characters
  2. A mix of letters and numbers (also sometimes special characters or spaces)

Use a Different Password for Every Site

This is extremely important because this way if one of your passwords is discovered or breached, the fraudsters will only have access to one of your accounts. Whereas, if you use the same password for every account and your password is compromised, the scam artists will have access to all of your accounts.

Change Passwords Periodically

Like spring cleaning or changing the clocks for daylight savings time, changing your passwords should be a seasonal ritual that you perform at least every three months.

Choose a Password That You’ll Remember

When you’re changing passwords periodically, this can be a challenge. Here are some things not to do:

  1. Don’t choose something easy to guess like “Password” or “12345678.”
  2. Do not include your name or any personal data.
  3. Don’t include the name of the company that owns the website.

Now that you know what not to do, here are some suggestions for creating a password that is as memorable as it is secure:

  • Start with a complete sentence, then use only the first letters of each word. For example: “My two dogs have fleas and have been dewormed” becomes “M2dhf&hbd” (end punctuation optional).
  • Substitute numbers and symbols for letters, such as “1” for “I,” “$” for “S,” etc. You can also substitute letters for whole words, such as “U” for “you” or “B” for “be.”
  • Choose information that is significant to you, not widely known, but that would not harm you if it were made public. For example, instead of “My date of birth is November 22, 1969,” use something like, “My first day of school was September 6, 1975,” which, when rendered as a password, becomes “M1stdosw9675”; note how “first” becomes “1st” and the date is rendered in numerals.
  • Another mnemonic technique is to use song lyrics that you enjoy. For example, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star / How I wonder what you are” becomes “Ttl*hiwwUR”; note how the asterisk replaces the word “star,” and the letters U and R replace the words “you are.”

Here’s A Video on How to Create a Strong Password

8. Protect Your Personal Data When Buying Online

Protect Your Identity. Text on tablet device on a wooden table - buying online

Think about this; your reputation is the only thing that you will be able to take with you to the grave. Therefore, your name and personal data are the most precious commodities that you possess; if they are misused, mishandled, or misappropriated, your reputation is the one that will be tarnished.

If you think about it that way, you can see why it is so important not to give out your personal information indiscriminately. When you’re filling out an online form, think about what information the retailer really needs to complete the purchase. Unless you’re making a big purchase that requires a credit check for financing purposes, they don’t need your social security number, and if you’re ordering online for in-store pickup, they don’t really need your mailing address.

When you’re filling out online forms, be aware of the fields that are required versus the fields that are optional. You are not obliged to fill out any optional fields, so think twice about doing so. Furthermore, if you think the required fields are asking more than they need to know, cancel the purchase and exit the website. There will always be another bargain, but once your identity is compromised, it is very difficult to restore it.

9. Conduct Research When Buying Online

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While it’s best to buy from well-known and established retailers, sometimes it isn’t always possible, particularly if you’re looking for a specialty item that may not be available in big stores. In that case, proceed with caution and do your homework before making the purchase. Do a web search on the company and see if there are negative reviews or other red flags that pop up. One telltale sign that the company you’re dealing with may not be legitimate is if the website doesn’t provide a physical address and phone number.

10. Divide and Conquer When Buying Online

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For an extra layer of security, separate the different facets of your online life by using one browser for shopping or other financial transactions and another browser for everything else. This minimizes the risk that your financial information will somehow bleed into your social network accounts, for example.

Another way to keep your credit card number secure and separate is by using temporary credit cards when shopping online. You can get these cards from your bank; they are connected to your regular credit card account but have a unique card number that will expire after a set amount of time, so that even if crooks do get hold of the number, the amount of harm they can do with it is minimized.

11. Keep an Eye on Billing Statements When Buying Online

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Reviewing your billing statements doesn’t only mean keeping an eye on your monthly payments but also checking your online account summary several times throughout the month and reporting any purchases that you don’t recall making. Fraudulent purchases can be reversed if they are reported within 30 days, but the sooner you can report a suspicious transaction, the easier it will be to reverse it and prevent more purchases from being made.

12. Be Proactive in Protecting Your Computer When Buying Online

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It is better to prevent malicious software from invading your computer in the first place than to have to clean it up later. At baseline, your computer and other devices should be equipped with antivirus software. McAfee and Webroot are two that consistently get good reviews, but not all antivirus programs are created equal, so be sure to conduct research before you buy. Most antivirus programs will require a subscription fee, typically paid on a yearly basis. There are some free antivirus programs available online such as Ad-Aware from Lavasoft. Be aware, however, that some scam artists claim to offer free antivirus programs in order to trick you into downloading even more malicious software. Again, knowledge is your best defense and research your most useful tool when choosing an antivirus program.

13. Trust Your Intuition When Buying Online

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As you’ve probably heard many times before, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. This is especially true if you feel like you’re being pressured into buying something, a technique common to scam artists regardless of whether they operate on the web or outside of it. If something about the website you’re using just doesn’t feel right, cancel the transaction and get off the website right away.

These are only some of the techniques you can use to protect yourself online but following these tips will give you a good grounding in internet security.

Peace of mind on the internet requires constant vigilance. Scam artists have lots of dirty tricks up their sleeves, but you can defend yourself against them with knowledge, common sense, and just the right amount of gut instinct. Use our 13 tips for buying online to protect yourself.