Handy tips on staying secure when you shop online

Let's face it, there's every reason in the world to shop online. The bargains are there. The selection is mind-boggling. The shopping is secure. Shipping is fast. Even returns are pretty easy, with the right e-tailers. Shopping has never been easier or more convenient for consumers.

But what about the bad guys who lie in wait with various strains of malware? You don’t have to be afraid, as long as you follow some common sense and practical advice. Follow these basic guidelines and you can shop online with confidence.

1. Use familiar websites

Start at a trusted site rather than shopping with a search engine. Search results can be rigged to lead you astray, especially when you drift past the first few pages of links. If you know the site, chances are it's less likely to be a rip off. We all know Amazon.co.uk and we know that it carries everything under the sun; likewise, just about every major retail outlet has an online store. Beware of misspellings or sites using a different top-level domain (.net instead of .com, for example) – those are the oldest tricks in the book. Yes, the sales on these sites might look enticing, but that's how they trick you into giving up your info.

2. Look for the lock

Never, ever, ever, buy anything online using your credit card from a site that doesn't have SSL (secure sockets layer) encryption installed – at the very least. You'll know if the site has SSL because the URL for the site will start with HTTPS:// (instead of just HTTP://). An icon of a locked padlock will appear, typically right next to the URL in the address bar. Oh, and never, ever, give anyone your credit card over email. Ever.

3. Don't tell all

No online shopping store needs your national insurance number or your birth date to do business. However, if crooks get them, combined with your credit card number for purchases, they can do a lot of damage. The more they know, the easier it is to steal your identity. When possible, default to giving up the least amount of information possible.

4. Check statements

Don't wait for your bill to come at the end of the month. Go online regularly and look at electronic statements for your credit card, debit card, and bank accounts. Make sure you don't see any fraudulent charges, even originating from sites like PayPal. (After all, there's more than one way to get to your money).

If you do see something wrong, pick up the phone to address the matter quickly. In the case of credit cards, pay the bill only once you know all your charges are accurate. You have 30 days to notify the bank or card issuer of problems, but after that, you might be liable for the charges anyway.

5. Inoculate your PC

Swindlers don't just sit around waiting for you to give them data; sometimes they give you a little something extra to help things along. You need to protect against malware with regular updates to your anti-virus program. There’s no excuse for not having a security program these days, as there are quality solutions out there which cost nothing, such as AVG and Avast.

6. Use strong passwords

We like to beat this dead horse about making sure to utilise uncrackable passwords, but it's never more important than when banking and shopping online. See our tips for creating strong passwords, and you might want to look into a password manager app.

7. Mobile matters

There’s no real need to be any more nervous about shopping on a mobile device than online on a PC. The trick is to use apps provided directly by the retailers, like Amazon’s official app. Use the apps to find what you want and then make the purchase directly, without going to the store or the website.

8. Avoid public terminals

Hopefully we don't have to tell you it's a bad idea to use a public computer to make purchases, but we still will. If you do, just remember to log out every time you use a public terminal, even if you were just checking email.

What about using your own laptop to shop while you're out? It's one thing to hand over a credit card to get swiped at the checkout, but when you must enter the number and expiration date on a website while sitting in a public cafe, you're giving an over-the-shoulder snooper plenty of time to see the goods. At the very least, think like a gangster: Sit in the back, facing the door. Also, see the next point…

9. Privatise your Wi-Fi

If you do decide to go out with the laptop to shop, you'll need a Wi-Fi connection. Only use wireless when out and about if you access the web over a virtual private network (VPN) connection. If your employer doesn’t provide you with one, you can set up a free one with any number of solutions – we’ve rounded some of our favourites up in this article.

By the way, now is not a good time to try out a Wi-Fi hotspot you're unfamiliar with. Stick to known networks, even if they're free, like those found at Starbucks. Look for the network named "attwifi," then open a browser to click into the "walled garden" to get final access. You can also find free Wi-Fi at McDonalds, not to mention libraries and local cafes.

10. If it sounds too good to be true…

…then it probably is. Bargains which seem ridiculously cheap are doubtless scams, and many of these “offers” will reach you via social media. You should even beware of your friends, who might innocently forward such an offer.

As a final note, be very wary if you get a message from a friend claiming he or she has been robbed, especially a friend overseas looking for money to be wire transferred, unless you absolutely can confirm it by talking to him or her personally. Scepticism in most cases can go a long way towards saving you from a stolen card number.