How to shop safely online

Prevent online fraud and shop online with confidence by authenticating the sites you buy from, opting out of extra "offers," and following a few other smart tips.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
2 min read

Savvy online shoppers know they can get great deals on their holiday items without having to brave the Black Friday crowds.

Cyber Monday will be packed with discounted products from many tech companies and shopping sites, giving online customers an opportunity to save big while skipping the Black Friday chaos.

But before you let your keyboard do the shopping this season, peruse these tips for safe online shopping.

Here's the condensed version:

  • Vet the site you're buying from before you make your purchase
  • Record the details of the item and delivery terms to ensure you get what you paid for and that it arrives when you expect to receive it
  • Uncheck any preselected offers
  • Maintain a paper trail of your purchase
  • Watch for unexpected charges in your subsequent credit card statements

Credit cards remain your safest online-purchase method
One reader who commented on the 2009 post on shopping security recommended using temporary credit card numbers. Unfortunately, not all credit card issuers offer this service: according to the Credit.com site, American Express and Capital One do not issue temporary numbers.

Even without a way to hide the true account number, credit cards remain the safest way to shop online because the Electronic Funds Transfer Act limits your liability to $50--and perhaps $0, depending on your bank--but only if you report fraudulent charges within two days of discovering them. For more fraud-prevention tips, see my post from last May entitled "How to avoid sharing personal information online."

A safe-shopping checklist
In addition to using a credit card, verifying item details and delivery terms, and keeping a paper trail, follow these steps to secure your online purchases:

The lock icon in the address bar means your connection is secure.
Before you provide the site with any private data, check your browser's address bar for the lock icon, which indicates an encrypted connection. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

  • Make sure your browser is up-to-date
  • Check for the lock icon or other indication in the address bar (such as "https:") to ensure the site uses a secure connection
  • Trust your instincts: if the site gives you a bad feeling, leave it
  • Don't let the site store your credit card information
  • Read the site's privacy, return, and refund policies
  • If the site lists a toll-free telephone number for orders, place your order by phone rather than online (You may be able to convince the phone agent to honor any "online-only" specials.)
  • As soon as the item arrives, make sure you received what you expected

Online shopping resources
Whether you want to check up on a Web vendor before making a purchase, ensure you're getting exactly what you expect, or register a complaint related to an online purchase, these sites and articles can help.

Watch this: Smart tips for holiday shopping