With a credit card and online access, you can buy almost anything without leaving your home. But convenience is costly if you're not careful. Credit card fraud and identity theft were among the 10 most frequently reported internet scams in 2009, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
How to Use Your Credit Card Safely
Follow these 10 safety tips to protect your account:
1. Do a security check
Encryption technology scrambles personal information, such as your credit card number, as it's transmitted from your computer to the merchant's system. Look for clues that a shopping site is secure--these include:
- an "s" at the start of the URL (https:// rather than the standard http://)
- an unbroken key symbol or a closed padlock, which might be found at the bottom of your browser screen
- membership in internet security programs, such as BBBonline, Verisign, and TRUSTe
2. Buy from trusted retailers
Check out a little-known retailer before buying. Look for a physical address, working phone number, and e-mail address, and do a search online by entering the store's name and "reviews."
3. Use your own computer
Don't enter personal information, particularly a credit card number, on public computers in hotel lobbies and libraries.
4. Review your credit card statements and transaction activity
Check credit card activity frequently to make sure no unauthorized purchases show up, especially after you shop online. You don't have to wait until the monthly statement arrives--you can usually view recent transactions by logging into your account online (pay attention to the same security measures as when you shop online) or by calling your bank's automated voicemail system.
5. Use a virtual credit card
Ask whether your credit card issuer provides "virtual credit cards"--disposable numbers to use online. The numbers are useless to hackers because they are for one-time-use only.
6. Check your credit reports
Whether or not you shop online, it's a good idea to check your credit reports to make sure no fraudulent accounts have been opened in your name. You can get free copies of your reports once a year through AnnualCreditReport.com from each of the three credit-reporting bureaus. Stagger the requests among the bureaus (one bureau report every 4 months) to stay on top of account activity throughout the year.
7. Research before giving online
Exercise care whether you're spending on yourself or giving to others. Research charities before donating. Especially after disasters, crooks set up phony organizations that pretend to collect money for victims but exist only to steal credit card numbers.
8. Don't swallow a phishing hook
Beware of e-mails that purport to be from your credit card company and ask you to provide account information. Don't click on any links in these e-mails. Instead, contact your credit card company directly if you're concerned that they may need information from you.
9. Beware of shopping clubs
Don't fall for free trial memberships in shopping or loyalty clubs. These marketing schemes, embedded in the transaction process on retail sites, aren't fraudulent, but they are tricky. They try to get you to sign up for a free trial membership in a club promising discounts. After the trial period ends, your credit card is charged monthly dues until you cancel. Read every screen carefully when you shop online, and decline joining.
10. Use hard-to-crack passwords
Tough passwords include lowercase and capital letters, punctuation, symbols, and numbers. Avoid using real words in any language. Crooks use special software programs to wage "dictionary attacks" that guess easy passwords.
Credit cards are safer to use online than debit cards because they provide stronger liability protection in case of fraud and better ability to dispute purchases. Still, even if your credit card has a zero liability policy, fraud costs you time to clear up. Save yourself from hassle and guard your credit card on the web.