These days, you probably think twice before giving out your Social Security number to people, but when it comes to maintaining privacy online while shopping, figuring out how to prevent information theft is not as straightforward.
With a 62% increase in data breaches in 2013 from a year earlier, online security is a growing concern among consumers. The good news is, by changing some habits and updating software, you can protect your account information, credit card numbers and passwords more effectively while you’re cruising the Web for deals.
Here’s a look at what you can do to protect yourself while shopping online:
Secure websites and Wi-Fi Don’t make online purchases using a coffee shop’s free Wi-Fi Web connection — chances are it’s public and anything you send over it, including account numbers and passwords, can be seen and recorded by hackers. Instead, use only your personal, password-protected network. If you’re filling out a form or making a payment online, check for a little lock sign in the corner of your browser once you’re at the merchant or bank site and make sure the beginning of the Web address is “https,” not “http” — the “s” stands for “secure.” This means your information is encrypted and can’t be viewed by hackers.
Shop carefully The Internet is full of imposter websites, so keep that in mind when searching for deals. Hackers create these “phishing” holes using similar names and logos as those of real merchants and banks, which can make it tricky to differentiate the legitimate sites from fake ones. So your payment information might end up in the wrong hands if you’re not cautious.
Instead of looking for the cheapest price possible, stick to brands and reputable websites you’re familiar with, and make sure they use encrypted payment systems. If you’re unsure about one, look for third-party reviews and check it out with the Better Business Bureau to find out about other users’ experiences.
Beware of phishers Phishing emails are getting more convincing every day, so more people are responding to them. If you shop online regularly and routinely get emails from stores, it can be easy to mix up a legitimate marketing offer with one of these scams, especially since many may sport familiar logos. A recent academic study found that when phishing emails sent to 125 undergraduates included their school’s name, the attack had a surprisingly high 68% success rate.
As a rule of thumb, if anyone asks for log-on or payment information, ignore the request. Also, avoid clicking through links sent in emails from unfamiliar sources. Don’t compromise your privacy by responding to an email just because it includes a familiar brand name.
Update software Cyber-criminals sometimes use drive-by downloads — software that automatically downloads without your permission — to steal private information. If you click on a shady ad accidentally while online shopping, you might unknowingly put your personal information at risk.
Protect yourself from these stealthy attacks by keeping your anti-virus software up-to-date and installing Web-filtering programs. It might take a little time, but with steps like these and improved habits, you’ll be able to rest easy knowing that your information is more secure while shopping online. Be sure to contact your bank if you have additional questions or want to know more about how to stay secure online.
Claire Davidson, NerdWallet