The holiday season is fast approaching, and with all of the planning, celebrations, family dinners, seasonal events and – of course – gift shopping, there’s no shortage of things to do. Saving time and money throughout the holidays is a smart strategy and will help make the season more enjoyable. When it comes to shopping, the key is to make sure you shop safely and securely – especially when buying gifts online.
As more and more consumers shop online, customers must be hyper vigilant about fraud, identity theft and other security risks. Here are several tips to remember before sharing your credit card and personal information with any online retailer.
1. Shop with retailers you know. Internet-savvy hackers can attempt to confuse online shoppers by creating look-alike web sites that lead you to “purchase” screens that request your financial information. When shopping online, make sure you’re on an authentic site – preferably a business, retailer or third-party pay site (like PayPal) that you know and trust. Enter web site URLs very carefully to avoid being directed to a copycat web site. Once you’ve landed on the home page, confirm the URL by reloading just to be safe.
2. Pay for purchases on secure web sites. Never make a purchase until you confirm that the online retailer you’re doing business with uses secure socket layer (SSL) encryption. Encryption technology transfers information between computers, scrambling the information you provide, such as your credit card number, in order to prevent computer hackers from intercepting it as it travels to the retailer’s system. You can determine if a web site has SSL simply by checking the URL. If the site begins with HTTPS:// (instead of the normal web prefix HTTP://), it has SSL encryption. In addition, check your web browser for a locked padlock icon found in the status bar at the bottom of the web browser or in the address bar. If there is confusion or a technology issue that is preventing you from making a purchase on a trusted site, pick up the phone and call a customer service representative rather than sending an email message with personal information.
3. Avoid email links to offers that seem “too good to be true.” Every day email spammers send millions of phishing emails offering free or discounted products and services. Don’t believe the online hype. If an email offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Phishing emails typically include several clickable links that may take you to a dummy website or ask you for personal information such as confirming your email address or credit card number. Don’t click links in an email from anyone you don’t know and never provide personal information in an email response.
4. Pay with your credit card, not a debit card. Debit cards are a convenient option for shoppers who are on a budget as it prevents racking up a large credit bill. But consider other ways to stick to a budget when shopping online. Making online purchases with a credit card means you’re protected under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act. If a transaction goes wrong, you have the right to dispute charges on your credit card, and you can even withhold payments during a credit investigation.
5. Scrutinize your monthly statements. If you make many holiday purchases on a credit card, take extra time to review your statement when it arrives to ensure you don’t pay for purchases you never made. If you do notice any unusual charges, contact your credit card company immediately. Note that while it’s not typical, identity thieves can obtain your financial information during the holidays and use it in the future, so if you shop online regularly, monitor your credit card statements carefully and frequently year-round.
With a little patience and knowledge, you can have a secure online shopping experience this holiday season. Consider meeting with a financial advisor who can help you manage your household budget during the holiday season and ensure that all of your financial accounts are secure.
Paul J. Fragala, CFP, CIMA, is a Financial Advisor with Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. in Andover, MA. He specializes in fee-based financial planning and asset management strategies and has been in practice for 18 years. To contact him: www.paulfragala.com, 76 Main St., Andover, MA, (978)-474-9900.
Advisor is licensed/registered to do business with U.S. residents only in the states of MA, PA, MD, AZ, RI, FL, TX, DC, NY, SD, ME, CA, IA, OH, IL, NH, MI, NJ, NM, NC, VT, ND.
Brokerage, investment and financial advisory services are made available through Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. Member FINRA and SIPC.
© 2012 Ameriprise Financial, Inc. All rights reserved. File # 146871