With less than two weeks until Christmas, shopping may reach a frenzied pitch as people strive to get the last gifts on their lists purchased, wrapped and stowed safely under the tree. And for many, shopping on computers and mobile devices is a tempting alternative to braving icy roads to the mall. Yet, regardless of the time crunch, it's worthwhile to follow online safety rules.
Private Internet connections only
Avoid public WiFi networks where your private information may not be so private. It's astonishingly simple for a criminal to set up a malicious WiFi network that appears in lists of available networks on anyone's computer that is in the vicinity. This can happen at coffee shops, hotels and airports. Log on to "free hotel wifi" and everything you type can be recorded and later used by others. Save your shopping for when you're at home on your own network -- and be sure it's password protected.
Check that the website is safe for shopping. While you may be looking for a one-of-a-kind gift, don't rely on Google searches alone to locate a website. You want to stick with familiar sites when possible to avoid those that might be posing as legitimate sites, but are really out to steal your credit card information or infect your computer.
How can you vet an unfamiliar site? First, make sure the website includes the retailer's name, address, phone number and an email address. If you feel uncertain, call the site's customer service line. As a reviewer, I always called the company to make sure there was someone on the other end of the line who could help me and who was knowledgeable about the products.
Look for a padlock symbol in the URL field. A padlock symbol that is on the page itself could indicate a fraudulent site. Also check to see if the web address begins with https:// -- the "s" stands for "secure" and indicates data has been encrypted before sending back and forth between the site and your computer.
Finally, do use Google to run a search for the company name. Look for comments made in forums and "customer complaint" sites. If the company in question is named, you should consider an alternate source.
Safety over convenience
Most online stores will ask you if you'd like the site to save your credit card number to speed future purchases. Always decline. Why? Time after time, we've seen reports of big, reputable companies getting hacked -- JCPenney, LinkedIn, Adobe, Living Social and others -- meaning someone was able to get into the system and steal customer information. The stolen information, which may include names, addresses, passwords and credit card information, is quickly posted on underground sites for criminals' use, frequently before the company is aware of the theft.
Special rules for phones
The rules are largely the same for shopping from your phone as from a laptop. But keep these safeguards in mind:
Greater protection is provided by using the retailer's app to shop, rather than your browser, but only download trusted retailers' apps.
Keep the software on your phone up to date in the same way you keep your computer's system and programs current. Check regularly for updates, and open them to understand exactly what is being updated.
Lock your phone for an added layer of protection. If you inadvertently leave it on the counter at a store, you'll at least know that it can't be easily used.
If you find yourself away from home in a must-buy-now situation, turn off your WiFi and opt for a cellular connection to shop online.
Leslie Meredith has been writing about and reviewing personal technology for the past six years. She has designed and manages several international websites. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at email@example.com.