Beautiful smiling African American woman using digital tablet at the bar.

Shopping online has a lot of perks. It’s certainly more convenient than heading out in a snowstorm to get your holiday gifts, and it allows you to compare products and prices from different retailers more easily than you could at the mall.

You can also find some great deals online during the holiday season, but sometimes it’s not quite clear how to safely snag them. As you head to your favorite sites, use these tips to help find the best bargains and keep your personal information safe while you shop.

#1: Like, Like, Like

It’s likely (see what we did there?) that you already follow some of your favorite brands and retailers on social media. But if you don’t, now is as good a time as any to start.

Why? Most businesses use their social media channels to tout promotions. During the holiday shopping season, they’re even more likely to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, for example, to announce limited deals and other flash sales.

Pro tip: Create a Twitter list just for retailers so you can quickly ID worthy deals throughout the holiday season and for online shopping discounts. Be sure to purchase with purpose, though, instead of impulse buying. More tips on social media and your finances.

#2: Disconnect from Public Wi-Fi

Thanks to smartphones, shopping online from anywhere at any time is easier than ever. Shop on the go, but one word of caution — refrain from using public Wi-Fi when making purchases online.
While encryption has improved safety drastically in recent years, some municipal and corporate Wi-Fi networks are open (meaning you don’t need a password to access them), leaving them vulnerable to hackers. So, if you’re shopping while at a restaurant, the airport, a hotel or any other public setting, use your mobile data plan instead.

#3: Update Your Device

The shopping you do online is only as safe as the device you’re using. Be sure your security software, internet browser and operating system on your phone or computer are all up to date. Hackers look for weaknesses to exploit, so head them off by keeping device security software current.

Pro Tip: Ensure your credit card contact information is up to date and consider setting up alerts to notify you of any charges that hit your account, or when charges meet a specific criterion.

#4: Use a Rewards Card

If you’re not diligent, shopping deals and sales can put a dent in your budget. If you’ll be shopping online with a credit card or debit card, why not take the opportunity to earn some cash back?

Pro tip: If you have stockpiled credit card rewards or shopping rewards at a particular merchant, redeem them to add even further savings to your deals. Who doesn’t like to get more bang for your (reward) buck?

#5: Build a Better Password

Security experts have lots of tips for creating a strong password, but the more nonsensical it is, the better. That’s because some cyber criminals use programs that can crack simple tricks, like replacing letters with similar-looking numbers.

Pro tip: Here’s some ideas for generating a creative—and more secure—password.

  • Combine a seemingly unrelated person, an action and an object
  • Use at least 8 characters—the more characters, the better
  • Mix both uppercase and lowercase letters
  • Mix letters and numbers
  • Include at least one special character, e.g., ! @ # ? ]

#6: Resist Last-Minute Cart Suggestions

Don’t toss that fancy juicer into your digital shopping cart simply because an e-retailer said, “You might like this.”

This holiday season, you may be bombarded with offers of complimentary items, so it’s important to try to resist the temptations. Sure, it might be impossible to shop and not treat yourself to something, but make sure whatever products you purchase don’t bust your holiday gift-giving budget.

#7: Skip Shady Sites

We get it: You’re hoping to land the deal of the century this season. But no discount is worth it if it means you’ll be a victim of identity theft in the meantime.

Today’s tech-savvy cyber criminals can break into websites with poor security and steal your payment information. Worse yet, hackers can make you the victim of a phishing scam or other suspicious activity.

Stay safe while online shopping by only making purchases from sites that encrypt your data using SSL certificates and require two-step authentication. Only enter payment information on a webpage whose URL starts with HTTPS. (This indicates it has SSL protection.)

You should also look for a trust seal (or lock symbol) with the words “secure” or “verified,” which means that the site is protected by a security firm. If the site doesn’t have these, click to close and find yourself another retailer.

These protections can’t guarantee your safety, but they can drastically reduce the risk of hackers nabbing your personal information.

Pro tip: Download your favorite retailers’ verified apps from Google Play® or Apple’s App Store®. They’re much less likely to be compromised. Consider checking out as a guest to keep your sensitive information even more secure.

#8: Take Advantage of Tools

Just because you’re online shopping alone while sitting in your favorite chair, doesn’t mean you can’t have a buddy helping you keep an eye out for all the best deals. Price-comparison websites, apps, and browser extensions can help you ID the retailer offering the lowest price.

Pro tip: Some comparison sites and browser extensions even allow you to earn cash back on eligible purchases.

#9: Read the Fine Print

Attention online shoppers! Pay attention to those disclaimers printed in small typeface when online shopping. Some holiday deals and sales have strict restrictions that can affect your ability to get them.

Don’t be surprised to discover the fine print is hiding that the best discounts require you to make a purchase within a specific timeframe, cannot be combined with another discount, and/or are ineligible for free shipping

Pro tip: It also pays to take a close look at an item’s original price. Some online retailers inflate holiday markdowns, making them appear larger than they actually are. Use a price comparison tool to see if you really are getting a great deal—or are just being misled.

#10: Check Out Return Policies

Gone are the days of major retailers offering one-size-fits-all return policies that apply to all types of merchandise. Instead, it’s possible specific items or product categories will have more limited return windows.

For instance, say you bought a half-price flatscreen on Cyber Monday at a merchant that typically accepts returns within 90 days of purchase. If you read the fine print, you might discover that electronics have a different return window and the company might only accept electronics returns in unopened packaging.

Pro Tip: Some return policies include restocking fees. These charges can be a flat fee or even a percentage of the item’s cost. So, if you’re returning a particularly expensive item, these restocking fees could end up costing you more out-of-pocket than what you initially saved with the sale.

Find more tips for staying safe online when you’re at home and on the go.