Staying Safe While Shopping Online

A few simple precautions help turn the Internet into a safe shopping zone.

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Dear Alpha Consumer,

Is it safe to shop online?

For the most part, shopping online is as safe as shopping at your local mall. As long as you know what to look out for, there's no reason to battle traffic or long lines when you can just as easily order what you want while lying on your sofa.

There are, though, some ways to make ordering that one-of-a-kind golf club for Dad or bidding on that chunky beaded necklace on eBay a little bit safer. Here are some tips.

Never click on links in E-mails from strangers. Fraudsters send E-mails with links to sites that look like legitimate shopping sites but are actually designed to steal personal information. It's safer to find a site through a Web search or to shop online at a familiar store.

Check the protections offered by your credit card. About 60 percent of 2007's $150 billion in online payments will be made by credit cards, according to a survey by Javelin Strategy & Research. But many people are not aware of the protections offered by their cards, or they use cards that don't offer a full array of security services. Many cards, including Discover and Visa, offer 100 percent fraud protection, so if you do fall victim to fraud, they will cover the cost as long as you report it within a reasonable time frame).

Card issuers also often monitor spending activity so they can notice when something unusual happens, such as a big expenditure at a store not previously shopped at. "Visa continually monitors accounts to detect suspicious or unusual activity," explains Jennifer Doidge, spokeswoman for Visa.

Mix your credit card number. Card issuers are increasingly offering customers the ability to create a new credit card number for each online store where they shop. That way, if someone else gets hold of your card number and tries to use it elsewhere, it won't work. At Discover, for example, consumers can log on to their online account to create a unique, secure number for each merchant.

"You don't worry so much about [shopping at] the big brands, but when you're finding a unique gift [at an unfamiliar site], it provides an extra level of protection," says Steve Furman, marketing director of Discover's E-business.

Use different passwords. Furman recommends keeping two sets of passwords, one for financial transactions and one for media sites and other less secure locations. "There's another layer of protection," he says. Of course, that also means more passwords to remember.

Be smart, but don't let fear get in your way. Many of these simple precautions come naturally to online shopping veterans. James Van Dyke, founder and president of Javelin, says, "If you know the rules of the road, these methods are very safe."