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Protect yourself when you shop online

It might be the season of holiday cheer, but scammers are working hard on stealing your identity.

By MSN Money Partner Dec 12, 2012 2:03PM

This post comes from Beverly Harzog at partner blog Wise Bread.


Wise Bread logoI was at Home Depot at 6:07 a.m. on Black Friday. I needed new Christmas décor, and Home Depot had exactly what I wanted at low prices.


Image: Couple Making Online Purchase © Fuse, Getty ImagesSo I got up early, thinking that if I didn't get there by 6:15 a.m., the stuff I wanted would be long gone. You can imagine how surprised I was when I got there and the store was fairly empty. The employees practically greeted me at the door and offered me coffee and doughnuts.


I said yes to the coffee and doughnuts, of course. I had the sales flier with me, so I pointed to what I wanted, and the employees collected it all for me in a cart. I was back at my car at precisely 6:17 a.m., happy and on an exquisite sugar high.


I went from Home Depot to Target and had a similar experience, but without the doughnuts (get with the program, Target!). It was clear to me that folks had decided to shop online.


My suspicions were confirmed when I saw the recent numbers from comScore, a company that analyzes the digital world. It analysts predict that consumers will spend $43.4 billion online this holiday season, 17% more than last year.


But enough with boring stats. The fact is, if you shop online, you need to protect yourself. It might be the season of holiday cheer, but it's also the season of credit card scams.


Here are some things you should keep in mind while clicking your way through the holidays:


Check the URL

Make sure you see "https" instead of just "http" in the Web address. The "s" means it's a secure site.


Now, according to the FTC, seeing the "s" isn't a foolproof method for identifying a fake website, because some scammers try to create a fake "s." Good grief! But at least checking for an "s" is a step you can take to make sure you don't enter delicate information onto a site without the "s" in the address.


Use a credit card

Don't use a debit card for online shopping. A debit card is linked to your bank account, and if the website gets hacked, the thief will have access to your cash.


Sure, you can probably get most of the cash back over time, but you don't need that kind of trauma during the holidays. With a credit card, you have much better consumer protections, plus your cash accounts aren't in jeopardy.


Don't fall for phishing scams

If you get an email asking you to send your credit card account number and password, don't take the bait (sorry, I had to get in at least one lousy "fishing" pun).


The email might say you need to update or validate your account due to a variety of issues, including suspected fraud. The email might even look like it came from your bank. No legitimate company will ever ask for this type of sensitive financial information via email.


You have to be alert because scammers get more sophisticated all the time. I got an email that appeared to come from my daughter, who is at college. There was a link in the email, and I caught myself just in time. The scammer was clever to know that I might open the link quickly since it came from my kid. That was a close one!

Check your accounts online for fraud

This an oldie, but it's a goodie. I know you're tired of hearing it, but think about how often you use your credit card at a restaurant and your card leaves your sight. Even if you're shopping mostly online on a secure, well-known site, you're still exposed in other areas of your life. And what if the reputable, well-known site gets hacked? It happens.


Avoid public Wi-Fi

It might be tempting to kick back with a latte in your favorite coffee shop while making purchases online, but it's not a good idea. Hackers are capable of breaking into Wi-Fi connections at hot spots. Better to get the latte to go and shop at home than to take the risk.


Use virtual credit card numbers

These are also what's referred to as "disposable" or "one-time use" numbers. Some issuers offer this service, which allows you to use a temporary number that's tied to your actual credit card account. When you buy an item, you use the temporary number, so if the site you shopped on gets hacked, the thief can't access your real number. The details for this service vary by issuer. Visa's service is called "Verified by Visa."


It might sound a little tricky to use virtual numbers, but trust me -- the steps are usually pretty simple. And best of all, the service is free.


More from Wise Bread and MSN Money:




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