In the wake of several very high-profile hacking incidents, most recently at Home Depot, it seems no shopper is 100 percent safe from scammers, whether they're doing their shopping online or in stores. That said, there are plenty of ways to lessen the chances that you'll fall victim to the most common shopping scams, fraud and data breaches. Read on for tips on how to protect yourself from scammers and keep your personal and financial info safer as you shop.
- Don't use public WiFi for online shopping. It's far less secure than your home or office network, and opens you up to having your data stolen by someone in the same area (a coffee shop, for example).
- Make sure your anti-virus and anti-spyware software is up to date, as well as your browser. For both computers and mobile devices, perform all required software updates prior to an online shopping session. In the case of mobile devices, make sure your banking and shopping-related apps are completely up to date as well.
- Shop at stores you trust. If you find yourself about to buy from a store you've never heard of, look for reviews on the Better Business Bureau website. Check out the site's payment system and, if it’s a smaller retail outlet, look for a well-known payment service like PayPal. And remember: if a site has a deal that seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- Don't click links in promotional emails (even if they're from a store you trust.) Scammers often send "phishing" emails with links that look almost identical to those of popular stores and banks in order to steal usernames and passwords. Instead, go directly to the store's website, and make sure the checkout/shopping cart section has a URL that begins with the more secure "https" rather than "http."
- Use a unique password for every site. In the event a store is hacked, the hackers won’t gain access to your accounts at other stores, banks, etc. Also, consider not allowing shopping sites to store your credit card information. It's less convenient in the short run, but if the site is hacked later, it could keep you safer from fraud.
- Use a credit card rather than a debit card. It's easier to dispute charges with a credit card, and you'll avoid the risk that your checking account could be frozen while fraudulent charges are disputed.
- Try using a virtual credit card number. Many banks offer these one-time-use numbers linked to your account that, even if stolen, can't be used again by hackers. (To find out if your bank offers them, go to your bank's website and search for virtual credit card number.)
- Or try “MaskMe.” If your bank doesn't offer virtual credit card numbers, the browser extension MaskMe can generate them, along with masking your identity as you browse.
- Create a secure mobile passcode. If you plan to shop from your mobile device, be sure to secure it by setting a longer and hard-to-guess passcode (instructions for doing this on various devices can be found here.) Also, it's often safer to shop from a store's mobile app than from your device's browser.
- If possible, use the same credit card for all of your online purchases. Keep a close eye on the statement. That way if your card is compromised, it's just one card, and it will be easier to closely monitor every charge and match them up with known purchases.
Good luck and happy shopping!