How to Protect Your Identity When Shopping Online

Tips for Ensuring Your Personal Information Stays Secure

Young woman holding credit card and using laptop
••• Getty Images/Oscar Wong

For all its convenience, online shopping—through websites or apps—comes with risks. Identity theft is increasing in frequency as imposters collect personally identifiable information available for sale by hackers. Credit card fraud is another risk. Staying safe while shopping online is paramount, and knowledgeable shoppers know the best approaches.

Choose Credit Over Debit

You probably don’t often hear advice to use a credit card instead of a debit card or cash, but if you can do it responsibly, you absolutely should. Unlike debit cards, credit cards offer protection from identity theft. For example, with a credit card, your liability for fraudulent charges caps at $50 as long as you report the fraud within 30 or 60 days, depending on the company. However, if you’re using your debit card online and someone gains access to it, they can clean out your checking account before you even learn there’s a problem.

It’s likely you’ll get part of that money back, but also possible it can take awhile, or you won’t get it all. This can set off a spiral of financial woe—bounced autopays, checks, penalties and fees. So, use a credit card instead and pay off the bill monthly.

Use Disposable Prepaid Credit

Even better than using a credit card is to use a disposable credit card, which is also called a prepaid credit card. Disposable credit cards work like most gift cards. Add a specified dollar amount to the card, and it’s good until that amount is gone. Once the card has a zero balance, you can add more money to it, or purchase a new card. Visa and American Express both offer these cards in varying amounts, so they’re easy to purchase. If the account number from a disposable credit card is stolen, it’s anonymous, so criminals can’t gain access to anything more than the cash value that’s left on the card.

Verify Website Security

Technology has advanced to where most online websites offer secure shopping. But if they don't, savvy criminals can capture everything you enter into a form on those sites, including your personal data and credit information. Limit yourself to secure sites. You can tell if a site is secure by the URL. A secure website address starts with https:// instead of http://. Secure sites also have a small lock icon to the left of the URL.

Don’t Shop on a Shared Device in Public

Do your online shopping at home on your computer or smartphone. At home, you know who accesses the device. If you’re using a public computer or network to do your shopping—at the library, an internet café, or at work—you have no control over who also might be using that device or network. Nor can you control what kind of spyware or malware might be infecting that computer. Therefore, it’s much safer to shop at home where you know both the device and your network are secure.

Don’t Store Information Elsewhere

Many shopping sites, such as Amazon.com’s OneClick shopping, offer the ability to save your credit card information on their servers to speed up the shopping process. It’s definitely faster, but there are some risks to maintaining your personal information elsewhere. If a company you shop with has a data breach, your personal information could be put at risk. It takes a little longer, but instead of storing your information on a server over which you have no control, just enter it yourself each time you shop.

Price and selection are two of the best benefits to shopping online. But don’t let the benefits lull you into complacency. Take the time to shop securely, and use caution with the sites where you choose to shop. Then, not only can you find great deals, you can do it without fear your identity will be stolen in the process.