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Advice & More November 2017

Dollar Sense

Shopping Online for the Holidays? Consumer Reports Offers Tips for Enhanced Security

By Teresa Ambord

Consumer Reports reminds us that if you use your debit card to pay for an online purchase and a data breach occurs, you may have just handed thieves the keys to the bank account that is tied to your debit card.

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A mobile wallet such as Android Pay or Apple Pay is more secure than a card, because they use substitute numbers or tokens, rather than your real account numbers. Also, your smartphone adds protections of its own, such as a fingerprint reader.

Last year’s holiday shopping season brought about 57% of shoppers to their computers and smartphones to find deals. The convenience and cost savings of shopping online are enticing to us… and irresistible to the criminals who see this as their heyday. More shoppers looking to avoid the crowds means more opportunity for thieves. That’s why Consumer Reports provided some steps to enhance the security of your online shopping. Here’s what they say, based on advice from Raymond Pucci, of the Mercator Advisory Group consulting firm.

  • Find out what your credit card offers in terms of extra security. Credit cards offer security features that you can take advantage of to greatly increase the safety of using your cards online. Before you shop, check with your card issuer to find out if you can get a temporary credit card number. The number is linked to your account, so when you log onto a merchant site and provide that temporary number, your transaction goes through. But the merchant and any hackers that may be scouring the merchant’s data can only see the temporary number. And that number will be useless to them.

Check with your card issuers to see if this is available. Bank of America, for example, has a program called Bank of America ShopSafe. Citibank’s program is simply called Citi Virtual Account Numbers. You can also disable a card when you’re not using it, with an app on your smartphone. Ask your card issuer. Discover and Capital One allow this, and others may too.

You can strengthen the security on your card by registering it with American Express SafeKey, MasterCard SecureCode, or Verified by Visa. After you register it, create a personal ID number that is known only to you. When you go, for example to Walmart.com to use your card for online shopping, you’ll be asked to enter the code before you can proceed.

  • Use a mobile wallet. A mobile wallet such as Android Pay or Apple Pay is more secure than a card, because they use substitute numbers or tokens, rather than your real account numbers. Also, your smartphone adds protections of its own, such as a fingerprint reader.

  • What about paying with a bank debit card? Consumer Reports reminds us that if you use your debit card to pay for an online purchase and a data breach occurs, you may have just handed thieves the keys to the bank account that is tied to your debit card. Even though your deposits are protected from unauthorized withdrawals, your funds may be unavailable while the mess is being sorted out.

On the other hand, credit cards have better consumer protections, as well as helping you dispute transactions when merchants don’t come through as promised.

Better idea: Buy a prepaid card. That prevents you from running up a credit balance, and if your card number is stolen, the loss is limited to the limit on the card. Be sure to register the card with the issuer so you get added protection if it is hacked or stolen, and it gives you a list of what you purchased. Depending on the card, there may be a charge of a few dollars to buy it – for example, a MasterCard or American Express or Visa prepaid card – but the protection of using a prepaid card is worth it. Often around holiday times throughout the year, companies will waive the fee. If you shop online at a merchant such as Walmart, you can purchase a gift card for no fee, and use it for online shopping.

  • Use familiar websites. Don’t find shopping sites in a search engine. The results can be rigged to send you where you didn’t intend to go. Instead, stick to familiar sites where you can type the name in. Just beware, if you type in a site and it looks different than what you expected, leave and try again. Scammers deliberately misspell a name or use a different ending (for example, .net instead of .com).

  • Allowing sites to keep your number on file: should you? I always believed the answer was definitely no. But according to Consumer Reports, doing that lets the merchant site protect you. How? They track your spending and if an anomaly occurs, such as a sudden charge of $500 where you generally spend $25 or less, the merchant may be able to detect fraud.

With a little extra precaution, you can have safe online holiday shopping, avoid the crowds and scoop up deals. Plan ahead so you can take time to shop safely and protect your assets. Happy shopping!

 

Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

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