BE SECURE !

When shopping online, plastic is the preferred me­thod of payment. However, you must remember that your credit card number is static. It doesn’t change unless you close and reopen an account, and once your credit card information is online, it can be compromised if it falls into the wrong hands.

There are some measures online shoppers can take to minimize their risk. First and foremost is ensuring that all online shopping is carried out only on secure sites. To be certain the page you’re on is secure, look for a tiny padlock icon, usually found in the top right corner of your browser’s URL bar. You can also tell if the site is secure by looking for an “s” in the URL address. While non secure sites and pages begin with http://, secure sites begin with https://.

Some Web browsers now have larger certificate windows that are easier to read and that allow users to examine site information more carefully. For example, if you intend to check out your online purchases using Circuit City’s secure Web page but the site name on the page certificate doesn’t match up, steer clear — and alert Circuit City of the problem.

Never send your account numbers or any other personal information via e-mail, which isn’t secure [source: FTC]. For this same reason, you should never access a Web site to shop through an e-mail link [source: Consumer Reports].

CREDIT OR DEBIT CARD ?

Shopping online is easiest with plastic, but some plastic is better than others. It’s advisable only to ­use credit cards, rather than debit cards, for online shopping. Credit cards represent an extension of credit, while debit cards draw directly from your bank account. Once in possession of your banking information, hackers can do much more damage to your finances than with your credit card number.

Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, consumers are protected in the event of identity theft or fraud — if they use a credit card. This law protects account holders by limiting their fraud liability to $50. Payments for unauthorized charges to a credit card can also be put on hold and investigated [source: FTC]. Even better, most credit card companies offer more protection, sometimes limiting consumer liability for fraud to zero. Using a debit card affords you some federal protection as well. If you notify your bank of a fraudulent debit card purchase within two days your liability is limited to $50; after that it raises to $500 [source: Bankrate].

Most credit card companies now offer single-use credit card numbers for online shopping. These expire after one purchase and only your credit card company knows which account it’s linked to.

Using only one credit card for online shopping is another great way to head off potential online shopping headaches [source: Consumer Reports]. If you have one credit card number sent via cyberspace, the potential for fraud is limited to that one account. Should a hacker come by your account information, you’ll have only that credit card company to contend with.

FINDING THE BARGAIN !

Online shopping presents consumers with a wonderful new advantage — the ease of barg­ain hunting. Prior to shopping via the Internet, finding the lowest price for an item meant perusing catalogs and circulars, traveling from store to store or hitting the yellow pages for a calling spree. Not so much anymore.

Check out sites like CyberMonday.com (Cyber Monday is the online retailers’ version of Black Friday) to get hooked up with online bargains. Other sites, like NexTag.com, let you comparison shop. There are also entire blogs — MightyGoods.com and FindGift.com are great places to get your online shopping chops — dedicated to aggregating lists of gift ideas. Often, however, a simple Google search of the item you want will yield even better deals. If you want a more focused search, head over to Google’s new Product Search page (formerly known as Froogle).

Search discount sites like Overstock.com for the item you want before buying it elsewhere. These retailers purchase excess items that manufacturers couldn’t unload on other retailers at a discount and generally pass the savings onto customers. Don’t be afraid of purchasing refurbished items either — this is often just another word for surplus inventory [source: Allentown Morning Call].

Tabbed browsing has even further paved the way for finding deals online. When checking out, don’t pass by the online coupon code bar. Open another tab or window and do a quick search for coupons for the retailer available on other sites, like FatWallet.com and CurrentCodes.com. You may come up with a coupon you didn’t know existed just by taking a few extra seconds for a quick search. Many stores will happily provide you with their own promotional codes if you sign up for their email newsletters. Enter the code before you check out to reap the savings. Keep in mind that this is only a tiny sample of bargain-hunting sites on the Web. You may have your favorites, but no one would blame you for keeping your shopping secrets to yourself.

PLAN YOUR PURCHASE

If there’s one big drawback to online shopping, it’s the agony of waiting for your order to be shipped. The earlier you make your purchases, the greater chance they’ll ­arrive on time. Under federal law, retailers must ship items within the dates specified (for example, three to five days for standard shipping), or within 30 days if no shipping date is specified in the transaction.

To cut down on shipping fees, try to order many items at once from a single retailer. Your purchases should be lumped together into one large package with one shipping fee attached. By registering with an online retail site, the cookies uploaded to your computer will retain any items in your online shopping cart until you either delete or purchase them, allowing you to ship everything at once — and at one price. Many online retailers offer free shipping on purchases over a certain dollar amount, and online coupon sites regularly offer free shipping coupon codes.

If you can’t catch a break on shipping, ordering early enough will allow you to opt for standard shipping. It’s almost always the slowest, but if you order early, you’ve got time on your side. Give yourself a little more time if you’re ordering from a third-party vendor through a big online retailer. The retail site’s delivery date is an estimate, one the vendor doesn’t always meet.