Top 10 tips for safe online Christmas shopping

Before the Internet, people had two main options for shopping. You could head to the department store and make your purchases there, or you could shop from a mail-order catalogue and wait weeks upon weeks for delivery. What an incredible difference there is today! Not only can you shop from your home, you can expect delivery in a day or two.

However, with this convenience comes a new set of dangers. It'd be tough for fraudsters to create a fake brick-and-mortar Debenhams, to say the least, but constructing a fake online marketplace is a snap.

So what with it being Christmas, and millions heading online to find bargain presents, we thought it would be a good time to give you a refresher course in how to shop online safely. These are our top ten tips to stay safe and secure while buying all those Xmas gifts.

Install protection

As a regular reader of ITProPortal, you surely have a powerful, effective security solution installed, either an antivirus or a full security suite. Right? If not, you need to purchase and install protection before doing any other shopping. Do that right now; we'll wait for you…

Stay up to date

No operating system or application is perfect. There's always the possibility a coding error could compromise security in some way. Of course, vendors do their best to close these holes, but a security update won't help if you don't install it. Be sure to have Automatic Updates turned on in Windows, and keep other browser-related technologies like Java and Flash updated too.

Secure your network

Chances are good that you've got a home wireless network, broadcasting a connection for laptops, smartphones, game consoles, and other Wi-Fi-aware devices. But that same handy wireless network could provide an entry point for a passing war-driver (or a sleazy neighbour) to weasel into your network and compromise security. Take steps to secure your wireless network before doing any online shopping.

Stay at home

Okay, you've got security software installed on all your home computers and other devices, and you know your network is secure. Don't waste that effort by shopping from some other PC or device, or by shopping while connected to a network you don't control.

Stay on the couch

Some experts contend that shopping from a mobile device is inherently safer than shopping from a PC or Mac. They point out that popular shopping sites have their own apps, so a malefactor seeking to compromise your transactions would have to hack each app separately. And hey – you can put your feet up and relax while you shop, too.

Don't fall for frauds

As we noted in the intro, it's ridiculously easy to create a phishing website, a fraud that looks just like a real shopping or banking site. There are a number of ways to avoid getting fooled by these frauds. Never click a link in an email ad; just go to the site directly. Look for the padlock that indicates a secure (HTTPS) connection. If you run across an offer that seems too good to be true, it almost certainly isn't true – so skip it.

Let your browser help

You don't have to rely strictly on your own good sense to detect fraudulent sites; your browser can help. For Internet Explorer, turn on the SmartScreen filter. "Block reported web forgeries" does the job in Firefox. Chrome users should "Enable phishing and malware protection." In Opera, "Enable Fraud Prevention." In my own testing, Internet Explorer's phishing protection outperforms the majority of third-party anti-phishing tools.

Don't save personal details

Just about every shopping site will offer to make your life easier by creating an account, so you don't have to fill in your address, credit card, and such next time you visit. Don't do it! Otherwise when that shopping site gets hacked (and it will), the attackers might obtain all your personal details. Instead, use a password manager that includes automated web form filling.

Don't over-share

Clearly you have to give the shopping site your address and billing information, but don't fill in any fields that aren't absolutely necessary. If the site requires that you submit highly sensitive data like your bank account number, empty your cart, wipe the transaction, and shop elsewhere.

Skip the debit card

Credit cards and debit cards look the same – that's why the assistant in a brick-and-mortar store needs to ask what you're using. But if the merchant ships you faulty merchandise, or fails to deliver, a credit card offers protection that you don't get from a debit card. Use credit cards, not debit cards, for online shopping.

Shopping online really is tremendously convenient, and it need not be dangerous to your security or privacy. Just stay alert, remember these tips, and shop safely online.