News of widespread security breaches from giant online retailers has become commonplace. But we can't forget about the thousands of daily attacks on individual shoppers, too. Hackers are looking to steal personal data any way they can, so it's crucial to defend ourselves.
While some recommend limiting your online shopping, the fact remains that internet marketplaces offer a near-endless assortment of options, and to take our shopping exclusively offline is going too far. And the accelerated digital transformation of many businesses isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Here are six ways you can protect yourself when shopping online.
1. Be Careful When Giving Out Personal Information
Your email address is one of the most common forms of personal information stolen online. It's been found in over 50% of identity thefts, and compromised email addresses account for more than 10% of those attacks. This fact is because your email address is the link hackers use to connect all of your online activity.
Limit Newsletter Subscriptions
While it may seem difficult to stop giving out your email address to online stores, keeping your email newsletter submissions to a minimum is the best way to avoid this hack and other hacks. In addition, by avoiding unnecessary subscriptions, you minimize the number of places your contact information is stored in the cloud.
Use Multiple Email Addresses
Creating multiple email addresses is a free and easy way to keep information private. While it’s unreasonable to make a different email for every online account, it’s good to create a few separate addresses reserved for specific types of online transactions.
Consider attaching the following types of online activity to different, unique email addresses:
Local online purchases
International online purchases
By using different email addresses across all your online accounts, you virtually eliminate the risk of losing all of your accounts in one cyber attack.
Create Unique Passwords
In some ways, this is the most crucial piece of advice you will find in this article. To keep your bank information safe online and avoid identity theft, you must use a unique password with every login. Once a hacker has stolen your email address or social security number, the only other item needed to max out your accounts is a password.
When you use the same password multiple times, hackers who steal it from one source can simply go to your other accounts and try it again. But if you create a genuinely hard-to-guess password for every account, this takes away a cybercriminals key.
Some experts suggest using a random combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. However, this isn’t completely necessary. Instead, consider odd spellings of words and made-up abbreviations that are easy for you to remember. For numbers, create a random number series that is easy for you to remember but isn’t connected to your address, phone number, or government ID number.
2. Keep Your Credit Cards Safe
Stolen credit cards are the most common form of identity theft, and they're primarily targeted at unsecured Wi-Fi networks or point-of-sale (POS) terminals. To prevent having your card stolen, use a credit card rather than debit. Because credit card companies offer better security measures than small banks, this makes sure the merchant will get your money back, but you will be protected from criminals, too.
If you are buying from a local merchant’s website, see if they offer an option to pay cash in the store or on delivery. There is no risk of credit card fraud during a cash transaction.
PayPal, Apple Pay, and Google Pay are typically more secure than debit cards. That’s because online payment apps make internet security a top priority, with better security settings and more ways to authenticate your transactions. However, to err on the side of caution, log out of internet payment apps after every transaction.
3. Keep Your Physical Address Private
Instead of putting your actual physical address in the contact form, change it to "anonymous" or "no label" when shopping for digital products and services. Like an email address, your physical address can help hackers link all of your online accounts to one another. The more accounts that can be connected, the easier it might be to guess your passwords or bypass two-factor authentication.
Use an Alternative Address
When you shop for physical items that must be delivered, avoid having them delivered to your home. Instead, if possible—ship items to a business address or post box. More prominent online retailers sometimes offer site-to-store options, where items ordered online can be sent to a brick-and-mortar location. Better yet, occasionally, site-to-store shipping is free!
Do Your Research
Of course, sometimes it’s just easier to have something sent to your home. That’s one of the conveniences of online shopping, right? When this is necessary, just be sure to research the website and confirm you can trust the online store with your actual address.
4. Consider Using a Virtual Credit Card
If you're a frequent online shopper, it's a brilliant idea to consider a virtual credit card. A virtual credit card is a temporary credit card number that you can use while shopping online. These disposable card numbers are designed to protect your actual account number from falling into the wrong hands.
Virtual credit card numbers have helped keep many identities safe while purchasing gifts and conducting online banking transactions. However, your card information is stored on your virtual credit card account, so a hacker would need physical access to your phone, tablet, or laptop to take it over and steal your personal data.
However, virtual credit card numbers require extra effort upfront to get started and may not be available during quick, last-minute transactions. So when you have time to plan for a big purchase, call your credit card company and look at their virtual card number options.
5. Use a VPN
As you type in your credit card number, email address, and other personal information, you share sensitive information that can be intercepted at multiple points in the transaction. A virtual private network can help you take your browsing to a safer place by essentially disguising your data so that the bad guys are left locked outside the door.
Free vs. Paid VPNs
While some VPN services are free of charge, these networks are often slow and not that secure. A premium VPN is safer and will cost only a few dollars a month. With a fast VPN from Namecheap, for example, you have the protection of a global company dedicated to online privacy. With a VPN from a trusted provider, you can surf the web anonymously.
Add an Ad Blocker
Even when browsing behind a virtual private network, you can still encounter spyware and malware if you are browsing in the wrong place. Install an Ad Blocker extension for your browser for an added layer of protection.
6. When In Doubt, Don't Buy It
Some tech experts suggest shopping online only when there is a solid reason to do so, such as travel or getting a good deal. Others recommend sticking to small companies with a good reputation and adhering to best practices, such as using encryption or buying with a credit card. But you shouldn't be afraid to purchase if you follow the proper precautions and do your research.
That being said, if something on the website raises your suspicions, just don’t buy it. This choice can be hard sometimes, but recovering from identity theft is much more complicated than resisting the temptation to buy.
Common red flags that could mean a site is not legitimate include:
Multiple redirects to different domains
Multiple misspelled words or page layouts that look broken
Popups that ask for too much information right away
Sites that require a credit card number to get a price quote
Deals that are “too good to be true.”
Keep in mind, the list above helps spot possible fraudulent sites but is in no way comprehensive. So before making your first purchase on a site, you found online, do as much research as possible to confirm it’s an honest company.
As online shopping continues to grow, so will the number of attack attempts and customers getting their data stolen. However, with better precautions, you can prevent most of these attacks from ever happening. Just remember to do your research with any new site and practice the safety precautions outlined here. With a bit of preparation, you can minimize (almost) every online threat.