Shopping online hasn’t really gotten any safer in the last few years. Most reputable online retailers use secure transfers to encrypt your credit card information when checking out. However, as an increasing number of high-profile corporate hackings have shown, just because your credit card number was safe when you entered it, doesn’t mean it stayed safe.
The other issue with online retailers is knowing when the retailer themselves might not be safe. Sure, company’s like Amazon, Walmart, and Barnes & Noble aren’t out there to steal your credit card data, but there are a tons of little retailers you haven’t heard of, and they are the ones with hard to find items, unique gifts, and occasionally, deep discounts. Giving your financial information to them can be dicey.
So, just how do you manage to have safe online holiday shopping this year?
Limited Use Credit Card Numbers
There are some tricks you can use to stay safe while shopping online. Many credit cards, or credit card companies, offer limited use numbers. These virtual numbers can usually be generated online. They link to your actual account, but the number you enter is a one-time use number, or limited to a certain amount.
For example, a Citibank rewards credit card might allow you to setup a number that expires in just one month, and the total amount allowed to be charged to it can be set to any amount. Even if someone does manage to steal this number, they’ll have to use it fast, and they won’t get much out of it before it shuts down. I’ve seen this with Capital One Rewards credit cards as well.
If your credit card doesn’t offer this feature, and you are willing to pay some fees, you can use pre-loaded credit and debit cards to shop online. These cards don’t have a credit line attached. Instead, the full amount of money available is whatever you deposit with them. Use this as a last resort, however, because you have much lesser protections.
Monitor Your Credit Card Statements and Credit Reports
No matter how careful you are, a thief may still get your credit card number or steal your identity. That is why it is important to always monitor your accounts and your credit report.
Monitoring your credit card account is easy. Just log in online to your credit card’s website and look at your activity. Scroll through and look for any purchases that don’t seem right. Be sure to verify everything. If you don’t know, call your credit card company and they can give you more details about the time and place of the charges. If you have charges that aren’t from you, be sure they cancel your card immediately and send you a new one.
Monitoring your credit report can be trickier. Thanks to big-dollar lobbying by the credit report bureaus, you can only get one free credit report per year. That isn’t good enough to be sure no one is opening new accounts in your name. Fortunately, there are services that offer to monitor your credit report for free. Credit Karma offers free credit monitoring, for example. They send you an email if anything on your credit report changes. If you get emails about credit cards being opened, or even credit reports being pulled, take action immediately. You may have to call the credit bureaus directly. Explain to them about your concern and have them verify what is happening. You may be able to freeze your credit report, or have a fraud warning put on it if necessary.
Remember, online shopping at major, reputable retailers isn’t actually any more dangerous than using your credit card at brick and mortar retailers. Both the Target hack and the Home Depot hack exposed credit card information that were used in the store by customers.
The only way to stay safe is to keep a look out.