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Safeguard Your Identity When Shopping Online

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You see something you’d like to buy online, but how can you tell if the website is real or a scam designed to steal your personal information and identity?

Unfortunately, as the web has evolved, so have criminals and their tactics. With slick websites that look similar to a name brand site, a con artist can pluck information as consumers enter what they believe is a legitimate site.

“Everything is done online these days,” says Identity Theft Resource Center Social Media Coordinator Nicki Junker. “Most of the time the victims of cyber-savvy criminals won’t be able to trace where the identity theft — a crime that has seen double-digit increases in the last five years — happened.”

Identity theft (online theft is just one part of it) often goes unnoticed until it’s too late and the damage has already been done. In 2010, about 8.6 million households had at least one person who was a victim of identity theft, up from 6.4 million households in 2005, according to a recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Identity theft cost U.S. households about $13.3 billion in 2010, with the average loss being about $2,200.

Consumers can, however, take precautions to safeguard themselves and their identities while shopping online. Junker offers five ways to protect yourself online:

1. Confirm the site is legit: Before giving any personal information, check the URL to make sure that you’re still on the same site where you plan to make your purchases and that you haven’t been moved over to a fake one. Junker said sometimes consumers are switched over to a “cyber squatter’s” site that looks similar to a retailer’s site. It’s easy to be tricked into giving up credit card and other personal information.

2. Shop securely: When you start to check out and get ready to pay for your purchases, the URL should start with “https,” which means the site is secure. A secure site uses security technology to encrypt the information you send to the site, meaning computer hackers are stopped from collecting the data as it crosses the Web. You can also look for a closed yellow padlock at the bottom of the screen. If you see an open lock, you can assume that the site is not secure.

3. Use credit cards: Federal credit laws limit the amount a con artist can take on a credit card. Debit cards don’t have the same protections. “If they have a debit card, they can clear you out,” Junker explains. “You’re much better protected using a credit card than a debit card.”

4. Google the retailer: Before buying from a website, type in the retailer’s name and the word “scam” or “complaint” into a search engine. It’s a way to check out a retailer to see if the business is legit or not.

5. Explore the site: Can you find where the company’s office is  located? Does the site clearly state a refund policy? Does it promise too much? “If it sounds too good to be true, it isn’t,” Junker warns. Take your time and make sure nothing seems out of whack or iffy.

Something else to keep in mind when assessing a retailer’s website: take a critical look at the item’s description. Words like “refurbished” and “vintage” mean the item is repaired in some way, or old. The federal help site OnGuardOnline.gov warns to be wary of low prices on name brand merchandise — it could be a sign the goods are counterfeit.

Shopping online is a convenient way to avoid store crowds and traffic jams. By following these web-savvy tips, your shopping experience can be safe and convenient.

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