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The internet is a scary place. Like the real world, it's full of malice, deceit and people looking to make a fast buck. But unlike the real world, criminals can run their operations from the safety and anonymity of a keyboard. Like spiders waiting for flies to bumble into their webs, there are people out there waiting for you to enter your credit card information into false and insecure payment forms. Don't fall victim to their schemes.
Believe it or not, it's actually relatively easy to guard yourself against many online scams. As long as you take a few simple precautions, you can help avoid attacks from most fraudsters. Here are a handful of basic tips to make sure your online credit card purchases are safe.
1. Use credit, not debit
Debit cards aren't quite as comprehensive, and depending on when you report the card missing, you could be on the hook for the entire amount. Stick to credit. If you have doubts about a transaction, you can even use a one-time use credit card to generate a random card number linked to your actual account. This will make it harder for criminals to steal information.
2. Check for the 's'
When it's time to enter your information, make sure the page's address starts with https:// rather than http://. The extra 's' indicates the site uses an encryption system to scramble your information. The "s" doesn't necessarily guarantee the transaction is 100% safe, but it's a fast and easy check that can give you another layer of confidence.
3. Don't shop in public
This should be obvious. Don't conduct online transactions in public places. Websites often save login information, and you don't want to accidentally leave your accounts open for the next person who hops on the computer. Even if you're good about always logging out, it is possible for hackers to install keylogger information to record your keystrokes. That will give them your usernames, passwords, credit card numbers and personal information.
Using your own personal laptop or tablet? You're still not safe. A good hacker can snag your information using the public WiFi. Only shop online from your own computer (or that of a trusted friend) with a private WiFi connection. If you tend to make transactions in public places, consider getting a VPN.
You never need to give out your Social Security number to make a simple purchase. Don't do it. If a website seems to be asking for more information than is normal, leave immediately and don't look back.
5. Keep your anti-virus software up to date
Every computer needs anti-virus software. Otherwise, you leave yourself wide open to attacks and security breaches. Install a trusted software and update it regularly. You should also keep your web browser and operating system current with the most recent security patches. For people who aren't tech-savvy, this might seem a little complicated, but most of this stuff updates automatically these days as long as you have the software in place.
6. Check for a seal
Again, this isn't a perfect guarantee of a flawless security system, but it can help you feel better about your purchase. Most legitimate websites will carry some sort of seal of approval from an organization like McAfee, the Better Business Bureau, VeriSign or TRUSTe. This lets consumers know someone has taken the time to verify the trustworthiness of the vendor. Of course, these seals can be faked, but if there's no seal at all, you may want to reconsider entering your information.
7. Try something besides 'password'
A strong password is essential. You should always have a mix of numbers and letters, both uppercase and lowercase characters and at least one symbol like @ or %. Don't use obvious words like your name, your Social Security number or birthday, "12345" or the word "password." Make it unique and custom, and don't use the same password for multiple accounts. If someone figures out one of your passwords, you don't want them to have instant access to everything. » MORE: How to dispute fraudulent credit card charges
8. Trust your instinct
If a website seems shady, don't use it. You'll probably be safe on websites like Amazon and BestBuy.com. You can usually trust big names. Smaller, lesser-known websites should be treated with suspicion. If a site looks outdated or poorly designed, proceed with caution.
If you receive an email with a link to a website, never shop directly through that link — even if it is a big, well-known company. Instead, navigate to the site through your web browser. You can go directly to the site if you know the address or bring it up on Google if you don't. This will help you avoid clicking through to fraudulent links.