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How to protect yourself while shopping online

Gail Johnson
Pay Day
How to protect yourself while shopping online

Online shopping can be a great way to find serious deals, but bargains can come at a price: the risk of credit-card fraud and identity theft is omnipresent. One person is a victim of identity theft every three seconds in the U.S., costing US$4,930 on average each, according to Abine, a Boston-based online-security company,

“No website can guarantee that it can absolutely keep your data safe,” says lawyer and Abine privacy analyst Sarah Downey. “They just can’t.”

Online tracking, consumer profiling and data collection happen everywhere online, usually without people’s knowledge or approval. Nearly 80 per cent of people around the world say they’re concerned about their personal privacy online, according to market-research agency ComRes.

Other research shows that people say privacy is paramount, yet they feel they have little control over their personal information online. According to the Traverse City, MI – based Ponemon Institute, which conducts independent research on privacy, data protection and information security policy, the importance of privacy among consumers has risen from to 78 per cent from 69 per cent over the last seven years, while feeling in control over one’s own data dropped to 35 per cent from 56 per cent.

Despite the hype that we're all a target, there’s much you can do to protect your information, Downey says.

Set up a Virtual Private Network
A VPN keeps your connection secure from all the websites you visit. Many are free and user-friendly, such as FoxyProxy, Hotspot Shield, or private WiFi. “Say you’re in a café or in the airport using open WiFi,” Downey says. “You can run VPN in the background very easily and it keeps anybody from intercepting your information if you’re making payments. There are a lot of options out there, and that’s something people should be using.”

Avoid storing your credit-card information online
Sure, it's convenient, but what's the cost? “A lot of us do it to save time; we know we’re going to come back [to that site] want to have it on record. The problem is that even the biggest, most trusted companies have data breaches. What happens when your information is stored there? It’s at risk of breach," Downey says.

Consumers in the States have access to Abine’s “masked” credit cards. When shopping online a virtual credit-card number is used but charges go to your real account. Canadians can use MaskMe to create virtual email addresses and phone numbers to the same effect, meaning hackers won’t have access to your actual information. Emails and calls get forwarded to your real accounts.

Don’t give out your email address at every turn
No doubt you’ve been asked to provide your email address when shopping in a brick-and-mortar store for everything from clothes to books. The pitch is you’ll get deals, coupons, and rewards. The reality is companies are tracking your purchases.

“People should be aware that when you give out your information like that, it’s used extensively for tracking,” Downey says. “Let’s say you’re shopping and you buy a shirt and they ask for your email address, and it’s the same one you use on Facebook. Marketers use that to tie your real-world activity with your online activity, and they have incredibly detailed dockets about you and what you buy.”

It’s not just a data breach that’s possible; marketers may also fire you ads for products with higher prices than what other people might see. “If they know you like shoes, they’ll show you higher prices in ads for shoes because they know it’s valuable to you,” Downey notes.

Downey’s final words of advice are emphatic: “Your information is valuable so treat it like that,” she says. “Guard it and feel OK saying no when people ask you for it.”