Survive Cyber Monday with our Top 10 Online Shopping Tips

The phrase "Cyber Monday" was coined several years ago to describe the phenomenon of millions of workers returning to their offices on the Monday after Thanksgiving and spending a good part of the day doing their holiday shopping online.  By November 2010, Cyber Monday had become the biggest online shopping day in history and the first to surpass the billion-dollar threshold

By all indications, Cyber Monday 2011 will be a blockbuster day for online retailers.  Shopping online can be a convenient, time-saving, and economical alternative to shopping in a traditional "bricks and mortar" retail store.  However, it's important for consumers to take basic steps to protect their privacy.  If you plan to shop online on Cyber Monday (or on any other day of the year), following these 10 tips will help to protect you from fraud, identity theft and other privacy intrusions.

  1. Never use a debit card (check card) online. If your card information is compromised, funds can be withdrawn from your bank account without your knowledge.  Under federal law, your bank can take up to two weeks to investigate fraudulent activity before returning the funds to your account.  That can make it impossible to conduct your normal day-to-day financial activities.  In fact, if you don't report the missing funds promptly, you could potentially lose all the money on deposit in your bank.  To learn more, read PRC's Fact Sheet 32: Paper or Plastic: What Have You Got to Lose?

  2. Consider using a virtual or single-use credit card. Some card issuers offer virtual credit cards or single-use card numbers that can be used online. Virtual credit cards use a randomly generated substitute account number in place of your actual credit card number. Learn more in PRC's Fact Sheet 23:  Online Shopping Tips: E-Commerce and You.

  3. Only shop at secure sites. If you look at the top of your screen where the website's address is displayed, you should see "https://". The "s" that is displayed after "http" indicates that the site encrypts information being transferred from your computer to the merchant. You may not see the "s" until you actually move to the order page on the site.  To learn more, read PRC's Fact Sheet 23:  Online Shopping Tips: E-Commerce and You.

  4. Read the Merchant's Privacy Policy.  Will your information be shared with other businesses or affiliated companies?  Will your address be used to send you junk mail?  Will your email address be used to send you spam?  Look for online merchants who are members of a seal-of-approval program that sets voluntary guidelines for privacy-related practices, such as TRUSTe, Verisign (Symantec), or BBB Accredited Business Seal .  Learn more in PRC's Fact Sheet 23:  Online Shopping Tips: E-Commerce and You. Along the same lines, consider return policies, shipping and handling costs, complaint procedures, warranties, and restocking fees. Check the merchant’s track record with the Better Business Bureau.  Use a search engine to look for complaints about the merchant by searching for "complaints" along with the retailer's name.

  5. Don't give out information that is not necessary to process your order.  Of course, you will need to provide shipping and payment information.  But some retailers may try to obtain additional information that can be used by the merchant and other businesses to target you for marketing purposes.  This information might also be used by the merchant to engage in price discrimination in the future by charging you a higher price than it charges other consumers.  This is known as dynamic pricing.  By all means, NEVER give out your Social Security number.

  6. Never "recycle" a password. Some online shopping sites will ask you to establish a user name and password.  Password-protected sites are becoming more vulnerable because often people use the same user names and passwords on numerous sites.  Do you really want an online retailer to know the password to your online banking?  You may be doing so by "recycling" your passwords.  If your password for one site is breached, your other online accounts could be put at risk if you use the same passwords.  If you do decide to create a user name and password, make sure it is adequately strong.  Learn more in PRC's Alert: 10 Rules for Creating a Hacker-Resistant Password.

  7. Sign up for credit card alerts.  Don’t wait until you get the monthly statement in the mail. Many financial institutions offer real-time communications about changes to your credit card account. For example, you can sign up to receive email notification that a bill is due or a transaction has posted. Be on the lookout for charges you didn't make. If you do sign up for email notification, make sure you know the difference between a legitimate alert from your bank and a phishing email from a criminal. Learn more about phishing in PRC's Fact Sheet 18: Online Privacy: Using the Internet Safely.

  8. Print, save, or take a screen capture of your order confirmation.  Be sure that it includes the cost of the order (including any discounts or promotions applied), shipping and handling charges (if applicable), your customer information, complete product information, and your confirmation number.  Often you will also receive a confirmation message that is emailed to you by the merchant. Be sure to save the message as well as any other email correspondence with the company. 

  9. Be cautious when entering payment information at a Wi-Fi hotspot.  While it can be convenient to shop from your laptop or tablet at a coffee house or airport, most Wi-Fi hotspots are unsecured and unencrypted.  Hackers can intercept network traffic to steal your credit card number and other sensitive information.  Ensure that your device is not set to automatically connect to the nearest available Wi-Fi access point. Install a firewall on your device and keep it enabled at all times.  Consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN).  A VPN provides encryption over an unencrypted Wi-Fi connection and renders intercepted traffic useless to the hacker.  Learn more by reading PRC's Fact Sheet 2: Wireless Communications: Voice and Data Privacy.

  10. Know your Employer's policy regarding the personal use of company computers.  Much Cyber Monday shopping takes place at workplace computers.  Employers are generally free to monitor employees' use of computers and other workplace equipment.  Employers might use software that enables them to see what is on an employee's screen, keystrokes entered on their keyboard, and Internet usage.  To learn more, read PRC's Fact Sheet 7: Workplace Privacy and Employee Monitoring.   

Shopping online on Cyber Monday can be a great way to begin your holiday shopping season.  By taking these precautions, you can help avoid problems that might get your holidays off to a bad start.