Smart Online Shopping, Part 1: Security

Online shopping has become so mainstream that much of the early hysteria over the potential identity theft associated with online purchases has waned. In place of this hysteria, though, many have adopted a rightfully placed healthy fear of having their purchasing data compromised. There are always risks associated with making online purchases, but there are also many ways to protect yourself and your financial data from being misused.

Sticking to secure websites and transactions for your online shopping can significantly reduce your risk of compromising your financial information. A simple way to see if the website is secure is to look for some sort of symbol and logo along the top or bottom of the website indicating that the company has protected it’s purchasing process. Often times, you’ll see a padlock, a key, a checkmark or some other symbol indicating that the company has secured it’s website for the protection of their customers.

Not all websites advertise their security, though. Another way to see if the website is secure is to look to the URL, that is, the address bar at the top of your Internet browser. Most URLs you see start with “http,” but some will start with “https.” The “s” stands for “secure,” and that little “s” means you can trust the security of the transaction you’re about to make, even if the website is not otherwise labeled as protected or secured.

But the presence of an “https” or a logo with a lock and key is never a guarantee of security. If you’re looking for added security, or if the website you’re dying to shop on doesn’t display the security indicators above, there are other methods for protecting your purchasing information.

Many banks offer alias cards for your credit or debit accounts. These cards, also called “virtual accounts” or “secure cards,” allow you to make online purchases without having to enter your actual credit or debit card information. Alias credit cards or accounts often have single-use numbers that wouldn’t work if someone tried to re-use their information maliciously. In the case of alias debit cards, you can transfer money to the alias account before making your purchase. Should the debit card number become compromised, the would-be thief would not have access to your full account, but would instead be limited to the amount you had transferred for the purpose of the purchase.

If your banking company doesn’t offer an alias card or virtual account, you can still use a single-use gift card for your purchases. These gift cards are often sold at grocery stores or gas stations, and are most commonly Visa or American Express cards. This is probably the safest way to purchase online, as the cards are not in any way linked to your actual banking information. Just like with the alias debit cards, any would-be thief who obtained the card number would be limited to the amount of damage they could do. In this case, the only thing compromised would be whatever amount remains on the gift card.

With so many easy ways to protect your purchasing information, there’s no reason to be afraid of online shopping. And, if you’re going to move forward with shopping online, check out “Smart Online Shopping, Part 2: Saving” for tips on getting the most bang for your now-protected buck!