Every year we see staggering new statistics about how many people are buying gifts online instead of braving traffic, long lines, and parking nightmares at brick-and-mortar stores. During the holidays, many online retailers will also offer breaks on shipping costs—so the advantages of less physical hassle, no sales tax, and potentially free or cheap shipping make online shopping pretty appealing. However, the risks involved in online shopping are persistent as ever. Here are a few key ways you can protect yourself.
1. Use a virtual account number. This is a service that most credit cards now offer. Here’s how it works: Log onto your credit card account and with one click you can generate a random credit card number that makes it virtually impossible for anyone to steal your account number while shopping online. When your virtual number is generated, simply enter it into the merchant’s form and complete your purchase without revealing your actual card number. This virtual credit card number is only valid for a short period of time-long enough for the retailer to process your transaction, which will be charged to your real credit card account. But if a retailer stores that number and a hacker later breaks into their system, the number will be useless. Please note: Virtual account numbers cannot be used for purchases that require you to show your credit card at time of pick-up (e.g., movie tickets, etc.), because the account numbers will not match.
2. Make sure you’re shopping on a secure site. Look for the padlock icon or a URL that starts with https://. That means your transaction is encrypted.
3. Don’t trust emails from “retailers” claiming you need to verify your credit card information. This is almost certainly a scam. Every year millions of emails go out from hackers pretending to be eBay or PayPal customer service and asking consumers to provide information that the actual service already possesses. If you’re worried that a retailer really has failed to process your order, go to the site and look up your account or contact their customer service center—don’t click on a link in email that could redirect to a dummy site.