Online shopping has become a popular way to purchase items without the
hassles of traffic and crowds. However, the Internet has unique risks,
so it is important to take steps to protect yourself when shopping online.
Why do online shoppers have to take special precautions?
The Internet offers a convenience that is not available from any other
shopping outlet. From the comfort of your home, you can search for
items from countless vendors, compare prices with a few simple mouse
clicks, and make purchases without waiting in line. However, the
Internet is also convenient for attackers, giving them multiple ways
to access the personal and financial information of unsuspecting
shoppers. Attackers who are able to obtain this information may use it
for their own financial gain, either by making purchases themselves or
by selling the information to someone else.
How do attackers target online shoppers?
There are three common ways that attackers can take advantage of online shoppers:
- Targeting vulnerable computers - If you do not take steps to
protect your computer from viruses or other malicious code, an
attacker may be able to gain access to your computer and all of
the information on it. It is also important for vendors to protect
their computers to prevent attackers from accessing customer
- Creating fraudulent sites and email messages - Unlike traditional
shopping, where you know that a store is actually the store it
claims to be, attackers can create malicious web sites that mimic
legitimate ones or create email messages that appear to have been
sent from a legitimate source. Charities may also be
misrepresented in this way, especially after natural disasters or
during holiday seasons. Attackers create these malicious sites and
email messages to try to convince you to supply personal and
- Intercepting insecure transactions - If a vendor does not use
encryption, an attacker may be able to intercept your information
as it is being transmitted.
How can you protect yourself?
- Use and maintain anti-virus software, a firewall, and anti-spyware
software - Protect yourself against viruses and Trojan horses that
may steal or modify the data on your own computer and leave you
vulnerable by using anti-virus software and a firewall (see
Understanding Anti-Virus Software and Understanding Firewalls for more information). Make sure to keep your virus definitions up to
date. Spyware or adware hidden in software programs may also give
attackers access to your data, so use a legitimate anti-spyware
program to scan your computer and remove any of these files (see
Recognizing and Avoiding Spyware for more information).
- Keep software, particularly your web browser, up to date - Install
software patches so that attackers cannot take advantage of known
problems or vulnerabilities (see Understanding Patches for more
information). Many operating systems offer automatic updates. If
this option is available, you should enable it.
- Evaluate your software's settings - The default settings of most
software enable all available functionality. However, attackers
may be able to take advantage of this functionality to access your
computer (see Evaluating Your Web Browser's Security Settings for
more information). It is especially important to check the
settings for software that connects to the Internet (browsers,
email clients, etc.). Apply the highest level of security
available that still gives you the functionality you need.
- Do business with reputable vendors - Before providing any personal
or financial information, make sure that you are interacting with
a reputable, established vendor. Some attackers may try to trick
you by creating malicious web sites that appear to be legitimate,
so you should verify the legitimacy before supplying any
information (see Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks
and Understanding Web Site Certificates for more information).
Locate and note phone numbers and physical addresses of vendors in
case there is a problem with your transaction or your bill.
- Take advantage of security features - Passwords and other security
features add layers of protection if used appropriately (see
Choosing and Protecting Passwords and Supplementing Passwords for
- Be wary of emails requesting information - Attackers may attempt
to gather information by sending emails requesting that you
confirm purchase or account information (see Avoiding Social
Engineering and Phishing Attacks for more information). Legitimate
businesses will not solicit this type of information through
- Check privacy policies - Before providing personal or financial
understand how your information will be stored and used (see
Protecting Your Privacy for more information).
- Make sure your information is being encrypted - Many sites use
SSL, or secure sockets layer, to encrypt information. Indications
that your information will be encrypted include a URL that begins
with "https:" instead of "http:" and a lock icon in the bottom
right corner of the window.
- Use a credit card - Unlike debit cards, credit cards may have a
limit on the monetary amount you will be responsible for paying if
your information is stolen and used by someone else. You can
further minimize damage by using a single credit card with a low
credit line for all of your online purchases.
- Check your statements - Keep a record of your purchases and copies
of confirmation pages, and compare them to your bank statements.
If there is a discrepancy, report it immediately (see Preventing
and Responding to Identity Theft for more information).
Authors: Mindi McDowell, Monica Maher
The above article is reproduced with the kind permission of US-CERT (United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team) and the original document may be viewed by clicking here