How to shop online safely

Mikaela Bray
Mikaela Bray | Contributing Writer
Last updated: January 5, 2021
How to shop online safely

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Shopping online has exploded in recent years, becoming almost second nature to consumers across the world. In the United States, at least 10 percent of total sales occur online, while total eCommerce sales amount to over $120 billion per quarter.

As online transactions have become more common, so have cyber-crimes which target online shoppers.

In fact, the best estimates suggest around $58 billion was lost in the US to online fraudsters in 2017. So it’s vitally important to know how to shop online safety – and increasingly so. But how can you beat cyber-predators and keep your money save? This guide will explain what you need to know.

Understand the major types of online shopping risks

girl shopping

There’s little point in talking about how to ensure safe shopping online, unless we know what kind of risks to look out for. So here are a few of the most notorious online retail dangers that shoppers will encounter:

  • Fake websites

One of the most common forms of “phishing”, fake websites lure customers in with believable front ends and deals designed to entice you into handing over payment details.

  • Malware

In some cases, clicking on malicious attachments in emails or downloading certain files can cause malware to infect your system, which harvests information as you type – including payment details.

  • Information leaks

Sometimes, it’s not the shopper who is to blame. Information leaks from major retailers are extremely common, potentially releasing your details to criminals.

  • Fake apps

Believe it or not, phishers can also create totally fake shopping apps which look like the real thing.

  • Man-in-the-Middle attacks

In some attacks, criminals can intercept your web traffic by sniffing your IP address – especially on unsecured wi-fi networks.

10 tips to help you stay safe when shopping online

stay safe when shopping online

Online shopping risks are almost always possible to guard against. While the dangers are real, safe shopping online is within everyone’s grasp, but only if you take precautions and shop online safely. With these 10 tips, that shouldn’t be a problem.

#1 Never make purchases via unsecured wi-fi networks

Unsecured wi-fi networks are a goldmine for hackers, making it relatively easy to place themselves in between users and services like stores or social media.

Studies have found that around 87% of Americans use unsecured networks on a regular basis, and that 60% think that their data is secure when they do so.

That’s a big mistake, unless you take extra safety precautions.

#2 Understand safety certificates when shopping online

If you want to stay safe when shopping online, always look out for safety certificates at the retailers you use. You can tell that sites have taken steps to secure their servers if the green padlock symbol appears next to their address. Click on the padlock and if it tells you the site has a security certificate it should be safe to use.

#3 Become HTTPS savvy

Another handy tip about how to shop online safely is to double check the address of the retailers you use.

Alongside the padlock symbol, a properly secured retailer will always use HTTPS instead of HTTP in their web address.

If that “S” isn’t there, stay clear. The S means “secure”, and it makes a huge difference.

#4 Check review sites before you enter any details

When shopping online, remember that you aren’t alone. On any given site, you can be sure that hundreds or thousands of your fellow customers have made payments. And some could have terrifying stories to tell. The trick is to use sites like Trustpilot to read their testimony before you’re in their position. So make checking reviews part of your shopping routine.

#5 Look for the hallmarks of reputable eCommerce firms

In general, fake websites give themselves away through the content they leave out, which makes it essential to carry out a safety check before using an unfamiliar shopping site. In particular, check the contact details link (there should always be one). If the company are evasive about how to contact them, don’t even think about making a purchase. Reputable companies, on the other hand, have nothing to hide. They actually welcome feedback.

#6 Install a reliable Virtual Private Network (VPN) to shop safely

If you want to shop online safely, installing a high-quality VPN is an absolute must. VPNs create encrypted tunnels which guard your identity, so they are an effective shield against attacks on unsecured wi-fi networks. Many come with extra malware protection and email filtering as well, adding extra anti-phishing protection. Moreover, VPNs can allow you to work around geoblockers, potentially opening up cheaper deals on things like flights and hotels – as if you needed another reason to install one.

#7 Check your statements routinely just to be sure

online shopping

The rise of online shopping means that some low level frauds go completely undetected. After all, if a company adds $2 onto a $100 bill, and your monthly statement stretches to four pages, would you notice the difference? Checking your credit card statements is more important than ever, so don’t file them away without thinking. It’s good practice to scan them for 15 minutes every month to check for any anomalies.

#8 Ensure that your antivirus systems are up to date

We mentioned the risk of malware infection earlier on, and there’s a simple way to minimize that danger: ensuring that your virus checker is right up to date. But you might not want to stop there. Some malware flies under the radar of even reputable virus checkers like Norton. To catch them, it makes sense to install a specialist malware checker like Bitdefender or MalWare Bytes. Their databases are regularly updated to reflect eCommerce threats, so should put your mind at rest.

#9 Sharpen up your password protocols

At the more basic end of the spectrum when assessing online shopping risks, it’s essential to make sure that your passwords are as secure as possible. Don’t succumb to the temptation to use weak passwords that are easy to memorize, or to use the same passwords across multiple shopping sites. Imagine what would happen if a criminal gained access to one password. As soon as they realized your weak security practices, all of your accounts would be opened up. Instead, use a strong password for each site you use. If you need to store them, do so in code with pen and paper. And keep that paper secure.

#10 Be savvy when using your smartphone to shop online

There are some things to remember about safe shopping online with smartphones that people often neglect. Firstly, be very wary of shopping apps that don’t come from Google or the iTunes Store.

If they have to be downloaded directly from a store’s website, that’s a definite red flag.

Be sure to keep your OS as up to date as possible (especially Android users), and think about using anti-malware tools like Lookout, which cater specifically for mobile shoppers. And, perhaps most importantly, be very careful about entering payment details via unsecured wi-fi networks. Thankfully, mobile and laptop users have a handy weapon in their arsenal which we’ll come to now.

Now that you understand how to shop online safely, take action today

Online shopping is quick and convenient, and it’s opened up a vast amount of choice for consumers around the world. But it can also be hazardous, leading to theft and distress for the victims.

However, help is at hand. By beefing up your passwords, being careful with fake websites, checking reviews, and installing a high-quality VPN, shoppers can arm themselves against the majority of online criminals. These measures aren’t hard to implement, and they could save a lot of money. So put them into practice the next time you buy online.

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8 comments
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  1. Tulip

    Quick question: Do you think Honey is a safe tool for shopping online? It’s free to use, so I suppose it harvests information about what you’re purchasing, but what if I don’t mind targeted ads?


  2. Stacy

    Great tips!! Especially the one where you are asked to Sharpen up your password protocols. I have been burned once on an online shopping website and from now on I try to be cautious in my dealings.

    Purchase only from the websites which have secured payment gateways so that you don’t get cheated by losing your card/net-banking credentials. And do check product and seller reviews before purchasing, as some of the seller ships fake/first copy products instead of original.


  3. undinefan98

    I am such a shopaholic, and I had to learn to protect myself online the hard way! It’s usually safe shopping from places like Amazon or Walmart, but if you’re purchasing software or applications or elearning courses, you have to be careful! It’s so easy for people to steal your information. And even with the big sites, there are people who can get around that. People can be so awful so you have to protect yourself!


  4. WrestlingBearSchwarz

    I’ve ran across so many fake websites that it’s become second nature for me to check for the padlock symbol in the address bar of my browser. It’s amazing how much the fake sites can look like the real thing. But if you check closely, there’s usually spelling and grammatical errors that a legitimate website wouldn’t overlook. Thanks for the great information.


  5. Ellen Anne Louise

    My payment information was stolen about a week ago. I managed to detect it on time and take action, but it was still very scary. I’ve started to inform myself about safe online shopping since then. Thanks for the info!


    1. avatar
      Mikaela Bray Author

      Oh, I’m so sorry. This seems to definitely be a growing problem, especially with the Christmas shopping season coming up. I’m happy you were able to get a good solution. Stay safe!


  6. Holly Bird

    Great tips, especially for this wee and black Friday! Thank you!!


    1. avatar
      Mikaela Bray Author

      Hi, Black Friday brings a lot of good deals! So, be safe and happy shopping!

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