smart spending

6 tips for safe online shopping

3. Encryption doesn't equal security.
Leah Ingram, author of "Gifts Anytime: How to Find the Perfect Present for any Occasion," is a certified etiquette and protocol consultant. This expert gift-giver says one of the first things you should do before typing in your credit card information is look for the "plural URL." That is, when you go to the site's checkout page, the "http" in the URL should change to "https." A closed padlock or key should also appear on the page, letting you know your personal information will be encrypted or scrambled.

If you don't see either of these "locked" icons or a change in the URL, log out and shop elsewhere, says Ingram. The reason: "You can't be sure the site has a secure server, and you shouldn't take that risk," says Ingram.

Here's one tell-tale sign that you've entered a scammer's site: If you ever see numbers at the beginning of the URL, such as http://66.102.7.104@65465.51456%6AD%, it's probably a scam, says Stickley.

Even if you see a proof of encryption, such as the plural URL, you shouldn't equate that with the site's trustworthiness.

"It just means the session is encrypted," says Stickley. He likens the mistaken belief to believing that someone owns a house just because that person can lock the front door. It means nothing. To verify the site's trustworthiness, he advises calling the company to ask about its privacy policy.

4. When sharing is a bad thing.
Shared computers, such as the ones available to multiple strangers at computer centers, are a big no-no, says Branigan.

The danger is that hackers can insert a keylogger into the back of the keyboard, a device that looks like a harmless adapter. This monitoring device captures everything you type before it's encrypted. Sometimes installed as software, the device can be hard to detect. The best thing to do is avoid shared computers when typing sensitive information.

5. Pay with a credit card.
You've found a trustworthy site with a secure checkout page. Now you're ready to pay -- with what? Check, money order, debit card, credit card, cash or Monopoly money?

We got a resounding answer from the experts: Credit cards are the safest method for online purchases.

"The last thing you want to use is a debit card," Stickley says. "Most credit cards have protection on them -- if someone rips you off, you can dispute the charge. Debit cards pull money right from your bank account. It can take months to get your money back, if you ever see it again."

The beauty of using a credit card is that it's not just your money on the line -- it's the creditor's money, too. "If you have a problem with your transaction, the credit card company will go to bat for you to resolve it," says Ingram.

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According to the Federal Trade Commission, federal law limits your liability to $50 in charges, should someone use your credit card fraudulently.

-- Updated: Nov. 7, 2006

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