How to stay safe when shopping online

Shopping bag and smartphone.

Is online shopping safe? Generally speaking, yes! Online shopping has become much safer in recent years with options for more secure payment gateways and fraud detection. Online shopping during Covid has risen dramatically, due almost entirely to the physical safety of not having to venture out into the open.

Several other advantages of online shopping include:

  • Easier to find deals and discounts
  • Shopping in peace without being bothered by salespeople
  • Privacy for purchases on sensitive or discrete items
  • Easier to compare products across multiple stores or suppliers
  • Easier to send gifts to friends and family

Top 20 tips for safe online shopping

While online shopping is convenient, there is a drawback. Online shopping habits are often tracked or monitored. Fortunately, there are measures you can take to stay safe and anonymous. Check out our tips and stay vigilant while shopping this holiday season.

1. Stick to trusted retailers

Always make sure to research a website before making a purchase. Sticking to retailers that you’ve shopped with before is a great start. What if you’re shopping at an online store that’s new to you? Do some digging into their reputation through consumer reviews on Trustpilot, Yelp, and Google.

2. Check site security

Keep an eye out for SSL encryption on a retailer’s website. You can do that by checking if the website address starts with https (rather than http) and whether or not there’s a padlock icon to the left of the URL in the browser’s address bar.

It’s important to note that https encryption works whether or not you’re connected to the VPN. But, a VPN and https encryption paired together will keep you highly secure.

Read more: Why HTTPS vs. VPN makes no sense

3. Protect your personal information

Be extra careful about what information you provide on a website. If in doubt, give out the absolute bare minimum information required to make a purchase. Be cautious of unusual requests via email or phone calls asking you to verify information about your account. As a matter of safety, retailers will never ask you sensitive details about your account including your date of birth or passwords. 

4. Stay protected on public Wi-Fi

Making purchases on public Wi-Fi networks without a VPN increases the chance of your traffic being intercepted. If you don’t have a VPN, avoid online shopping in places like hotels, airports, public hotspots, buses, and cafes. .

5. Create strong passwords

When creating online accounts, ensure that you use strong and unique passwords in addition to two-factor authentication. Make it as hard as possible for someone to access your account.

6. Use online payment services

Where available, use a secure payment gateway like PayPal, Stripe, or Venmo. Linking your credit card, rather than your debit card, to an online payment service also helps to provide an extra layer of defense to accessing your money.

7. Be wary of fraudulent deals

If you find a deal that’s too good to be true, it probably is. If a product is noticeably cheaper compared to other websites, there’s a high chance it’s a counterfeit. 

8. Monitor your statements

By enabling automatic payment notifications on your online banking or payment services, you can be notified as soon as a payment is made—genuine or not.   

9. Use a VPN

A VPN, or virtual private network, will route your online traffic through a secure tunnel. In addition to providing protection, downloading a VPN for online shopping can also potentially save you money. As it turns out, prices on online stores and services can vary across locations. 

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10. Check if retailers accept credit cards

Credit cards are a reliable method for shopping online as they are backed by banks and financial institutions and are generally accepted by the vast majority of online retailers. It is one of the easiest payment methods to stop in the event of fraud.

11. Research online reviews

While there have been rising instances of fake reviews for online stores, it’s still recommended that you check out trusted review sites like Trustpilot. Keep an eye out for an inordinate amount of reviews with extremely similar or over-the-top language. 

12. Type the URL directly into the address bar

If you receive emails for online deals, visit the websites for those particular retailers by typing their URLs directly into your browser’s address bar instead of clicking on the links in the emails. This way, you can determine if the advertised deal is authentic and protect yourself from fake links.

13. Use a dedicated email address

Creating a separate email address just for online shopping can reduce the risk of spam. This also has the advantage of keeping all of your online shopping activities separate to your main email account. Alternatively, you could also use anonymous email forwarders to mask your main address.

14. Exercise caution when shopping from your phone

Where possible, opt for a retailer’s official app rather than making purchases from mobile browsers. Be extra careful with links from URL shortening services (like Bitly or Google URL Shortener) since their destinations are unknown.

15. Always log off after online shopping

Unless your device is exclusively used by you and you alone, take care to log out of all of your accounts once you’ve finished your online shopping. 

16. Install an antivirus or anti-malware software

Protect yourself against potential security risks to your online shopping activities by installing antivirus programs on your devices. Many reputable antivirus suites will have extensions and add-ons that you can also install on your browser.

17. Don’t be afraid to complain

If what you’ve ordered doesn’t match the retailer’s description, is damaged, or doesn’t even arrive, don’t be afraid to complain…hard. Complain to the website, the retailer, the reseller, or a state (or federal) oversight agency. You did, after all, pay for your order!

18. Use a virtual credit card

Virtual, or temporary, credit or debit cards are a great way to add an extra layer of security to your online transactions. Select credit card providers can issue temporary card numbers forked off your existing card. These can then be used for specific or one-off purchases.

19. Research physical addresses and phone numbers

Where possible, look for whether or not a business has verifiable addresses or phone numbers listed on their websites. An easy way to check whether an address is real is to research it on Google Maps. To be fair, it is worth noting that larger online platforms like Amazon also accommodate third party resellers and any disputes that may arise will be handled by Amazon. 

20. Read the Terms and Conditions

Always remember to read the terms and conditions for anything that you buy online. For example, make sure that a retailer is legitimate before purchasing gift cards. This can help to ensure that your recipient can access and use the card without any unnecessary barriers.

Risks of online shopping

In addition to the possibility of being tracked or monitored, online shopping also carries several risks that can catch out unsuspecting shoppers. Identity theft is perhaps one of the most common issues with unsecure sites allowing for the interception and theft of your personal details.

Identity theft

This can involve anything from hackers stealing customer personal and payment information, to phishing emails designed to obtain your personal information. Once your details have been compromised, it will make impersonating you much easier online. Keep an eye on your statements and email notifications for any unusual purchases that may have been made in your name. 

Stolen data

If an online store is breached, personal and financial information for every customer could be compromised and sold online. This could possibly then lead to credit card theft or identity theft.

Fake apps

Take care to ensure that you use official apps developed by online retailers. To determine if an app is authentic, make sure you download it from a link provided on a retailer’s official website or check reviews on Google Play or on the Apple App Store.

FAQ: Online shopping safety

What is the safest way to order online?

Payment gateways like PayPal are considered the safest methods of payment for ordering online. You only need to attach your credit card details to a single site/service—in this case, the payment gateway—and your details are protected. Payment gateways have robust cybersecurity measures like end-to-end encrypted transactions.  

Why is it important to shop safely online?

When shopping online, it’s important to stay safe in order to avoid falling victim to scams, identity theft, and a loss of money.

Shopping safely in store

Avoid ATMs

Take money out of your account beforehand if you’re shopping with cash, and make sure you have enough on you. ATMs in crowded shopping areas are a plum target for skimmers and other scams. Having said that, on uneventful days it’s best to use an ATM during the day with a few people around.  

Bluetooth beacons

Bluetooth beacons are Internet-of-Things devices that pair with smartphones and can monitor your movements and collect information on your shopping habits, proximity to products, and geolocation. This can be avoided by keeping your Bluetooth off or only paired to devices that you trust. Android devices also have a function that passively scans other devices to find your location. On Android 11, you can find this feature in the settings menu under Location > Improve accuracy.

Ultrasonic tracking 

Audio waves, unheard by most humans, can be picked up by smartphones and used to track you. Be wary about what apps you provide with microphone permissions, not only to deter ultrasonic tracking but also to ensure that your conversations aren’t being recorded nor mined for keywords.

Stay in contact

If you’re with company, try and stick together—or at least, make sure you know each other’s whereabouts. If you have children with you, make sure to keep them by your side at all times and let them know to immediately approach mall or security staff, or another parent, if they find themselves alone. It’s also handy to have your kids memorize your phone number, just in case.

Protect personal items

Keep bags, wallets, and purses secure. If you can swing it, get yourself an anti-theft backpack—preferably one with a zip that opens from the inside rather than outside. Take the absolute bare minimum items needed when shopping outside (we recommend privacy-conscious accessories like a Faraday Bag and RFID-blocking wallet). Don’t leave your items unattended.

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Happy shopping!

Read more: Ultimate guide to 2021 Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals

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