With the holiday season just around the corner, more consumers than ever will head to their computers, tablets, and smartphones to buy gifts online for friends and family.
A recent PriceGrabber survey found that 16% of US consumers intend to use their mobile devices this holiday season to view coupons, make purchases, and compare online prices with in-store deals. In the UK, this activity would seem more common as Econsultancy recently reported that 39% of UK consumers say they will use their mobile device to check prices or product details.
In the hunt for the best deal you can take some simple precautions to protect your personal information online. The risk of identity theft, financial fraud, and spam is real, and the repercussions range from the mildly annoying to the downright devastating.
A recent TRUSTe survey found that most consumers – 54% in the UK and 60% in the US – are more concerned about their privacy online than they were a year ago, so you’re not alone if you’re concerned. Taking a few simple steps to protect your privacy and data can make all the difference in preventing these privacy pitfalls.
7 privacy tips to ensure that you have a successful and safe online shopping experience this holiday season
1. Look for reputable trustmarks
Trustmarks come in various shapes, sizes, and colors, and can signify a variety of things about the website displaying them. TRUSTe’s green “certified privacy” seal, for example, demonstrates that a website meets our company’s high privacy standards and has committed to providing consumers with transparency, accountability, and choice around their personal data.
Most reputable trustmarks are clickable, allowing you to verify their authenticity by displaying a validation page. If you cannot click on a trustmark, or if the validation page it loads is not hosted by the trustmark provider, consider it fraudulent and contact the trustmark provider directly.
If you do not recognize a trustmark, some quick online research can reveal to you its significance and allow you to determine whether the provider is well known and worthy of your trust.
2. Consider virtual credit card numbers
Many banks and credit card companies allow consumers to create temporary credit card numbers. These “virtual” numbers are typically valid only for a limited period of time or number of transactions, and allow you to avoid exposing your sensitive financial account information online, thereby protecting yourself from financial fraud or ID theft.
Examples of such programs include Discover’s Secure Online Account Numbers, Citibank’s Virtual Account Numbers, and Bank of America’s ShopSafe program. If you feel uncomfortable entering your credit card number on a website or mobile app then you should ask your bank or credit card provider about equivalent programs they may offer.
3. Create strong passwords
Many of the sites or apps you use for online shopping will require you to register to complete an order or even to begin the shopping experience. Since these shopping accounts are often tied directly to your financial information it’s especially important that you use strong passwords when registering.
Strong passwords are lengthy, consist of letters and numbers, upper and lower cases, and special characters like exclamation points and ampersands. They should not should contain common words or phrases, or any personal information that could be readily guessed.
Microsoft provides a helpful tool to check the strength of your password. Try also to avoid using the same passwords across multiple sites so that if one site experiences a data breach your compromised password will not affect other potentially sensitive accounts.
4. Pay attention to registration pages
When registering for an account on a shopping site or completing the checkout process, look closely to make sure you are not unknowingly granting permission for unwanted marketing or information-sharing activities.
Review pre-checked boxes to understand what the company plans to do with your information – if you don’t agree, make sure to uncheck the boxes before checking-out. This can prevent you from receiving unwanted marketing emails or direct mail solicitations.
5. Don’t like ad targeting? Opt-out!
Online behavioral advertising is commonplace today. In most cases, a wide variety of companies collect data about your actions and browsing behavior in an attempt to show you more personalized content or relevant ads. If you have ever visited a company’s website and later felt you were being “followed” around the web by their ads then you probably were, as part of a process called ad-retargeting.
Thanks to a self-regulatory movement in the online ad industry, it’s now possible to opt-out of many of the behaviorally targeted ads you encounter today. If you see a little blue icon in the top-right corner of a display ad you can click it and follow the instructions to opt-out of ad targeting.
TRUSTe’s recent survey found that 58 percent of consumers, if given the choice, would prefer to only see ads from brands they know and trust. Another survey we conducted last year found that 85% of consumers want to be able to opt into or out of targeted ads on mobile devices.
While opt-out technology on mobile devices is not nearly as advanced and widespread as it is for traditional online advertising, companies like TRUSTe are working on the problem and mobile solutions should be more widely available in the near future.
Also, depending on your mobile operating system, you may be able to control some elements of mobile ad targeting via your phone’s privacy or data settings.
6. Check your social settings
Many shopping sites and apps have close integrations with social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and some sites may ask if you want to broadcast your purchase or authorize their company app on your social networks. Carefully read the privacy disclosures that accompany these decisions, or you might unknowingly announce your purchase or browsing history to your social networks, possibly ruining a surprise gift or even causing you personal embarrassment.
You can also check the privacy settings of most social networking accounts to manage permissions of third-party applications. If you’ve accidentally authorized a company to post on your behalf on Facebook, for example, you can delete this permission from within your Facebook privacy settings.
7. Always use “https”
If you’re entering your credit card number or other sensitive personal information online, then make sure the URL of the page begins with “https” (not “http”). The “s” signifies that page traffic is encrypted, protecting your data from unauthorized interception by potentially malicious third parties.
Depending on your browser, secured sites and pages may be highlighted in green or display a special lock symbol in your browser bar to indicate their encrypted status. Avoid sites that ask you to enter sensitive personal information on unsecured webpages.