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Make Your Online Shopping Safer

Just as you use caution when you are making a purchase, or when you are handling your money out in the “real” world, the same is true when you’re shopping online. E-commerce is mostly safe, and with a little caution and a few extra steps you can make it much safer. Here are some things to think about:

Check to make sure the website is secured with encryption technology. Don’t worry—it’s easy to do! Once the website asks you to start entering your information, look for one or more of these things:

  • The website address should now start with https://. The “s” means that this is a secure page. There may also be an image of a locked padlock next to the URL.
  • A bit more rarely nowadays, at the bottom of the screen there may be an image of a closed padlock or an unbroken key.
  • If you are still concerned, read the merchant’s privacy and security policies.

Do a quick check to make sure you are at the legitimate website address. Look at the URL at the top of your screen to make sure that if you wanted, it says Still unsure? Get the URL you want to go to (say,, and start typing it into the URL address box. Press Enter, and you should be directed either back to the page you were on, or to the real website page.

Think through your purchase: Is it something you might need to return or exchange? Check the merchant’s policy BEFORE you make your purchase.

How much is shipping? Remember that if you are shipping to Hawaii, you will need to make sure that the merchant is able to do so, and that they can ship the specific item you want. Be aware that even if the merchant claims “free shipping,” it still might not apply to shipments going to Hawaii. And always check the shipping costs—it can cost much more to ship to Hawaii, so you’ll want to figure that into your purchase budget. If you’re confused, a good plan is to call the merchant and talk to a live person at customer service.

And don’t forget to include sales tax into your final purchase cost.

Double check your purchase before clicking the Purchase button: Is the size/color you wanted selected?

If this is a website you haven’t visited before, or a merchant you are not familiar with, take a minute to do a little research. You can check with the Better Business Bureau, do a Google search to see what turns up, or call the merchant to ask some questions. Look to see that they post a physical address (not just a P.O. Box) and a phone number on their website.

Try to shop with merchants who are located in the United States—you are more protected by consumer laws.

Use a credit card or a prepaid debit card to make your online purchase. With a credit card, you’ll be protected under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, in which you have the right to challenge charges on your credit card, to dispute charges, and to withhold payment while your claim is being investigated. If your credit card was used without your authorization, you are only responsible for the first $50 in charges (though a prompt reporting of an unauthorized use will usually result in not paying even that charge). Don’t use a debit or ATM card—they link directly to your bank account. By using a prepaid debit card, you can make your online purchase while controlling the amount of your risk, and you do not make your bank account vulnerable to thieves. Another good idea is to purchase a retailer-specific gift card to use for online purchases.

Do not use a money transfer to pay for your online purchase.

Be sure to always check your bank account and your credit card statements for any unauthorized purchases.

Do not give out your social security number. A merchant has no reason to ask for it.

Do not give out unnecessary personal information. The more information about your life that you share, the more likely you are to receive spam email, telephone solicitations, and even to risk identity theft. The merchant will usually mark with an asterisk (*) the questions that absolutely need to be answered to place your order. If you are still asked questions you don’t want to answer (age, birth date, etc.), just leave and do your shopping elsewhere.

Don’t respond to “phishing” emails. If you receive an email from a merchant or business that looks legitimate asking you to update your information, send in new or more information, to download a form or file, or to click on a link to do any of those….STOP RIGHT THERE. Just delete the email. A legitimate business will not ask you for such information via email. If you have any doubts, close the email, open your internet browser, enter the website’s URL (the real one, not one copied from the email), and go there to check your account.

Use a secure password that’s specific for this website only. Don’t use easily findable information (driver’s license number, social security number, mother’s maiden name, birth date, etc.). Do create a password with at least eight characters; one that includes numbers, letters, and characters.

Print or save a copy of your order, and keep any correspondence from the merchant about your order.

And, of course, use your brain! If something sounds too good to be true, or if something makes you uncomfortable or feels not quite right, you are probably correct.

Don’t be afraid–just be reasonably careful!

A good resource about e-commerce: The Federal Trade Commission guides for online shopping.


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