How to Safely Buy Online with Privacy & Security

Mark O'Neill 19-05-2015

Online shopping, responsible for keeping post offices alive after snail mail was decimated by email, and for turning some of us into lazy slobs who can’t be bothered to go to the real shops for what we want, let us order our groceries without leaving our bed.


How to Safely Buy Online with Privacy & Security HTTPS03

But while the big established brands have jumped on board with online ordering, you also have much smaller, lesser known businesses trying to compete with the big boys. How do you know if you can trust them with your Visa card number? And how can you better protect yourself generally when ordering on the Internet? As usual, the MakeUseOf oracle has all the answers.

Check To See If The Payment Page Has “HTTPS”

How to Safely Buy Online with Privacy & Security muo heartbleed help https

This is not an iron-clad guarantee of safety, as the whole HTTPS protocol has been breached before Heartbleed – What Can You Do To Stay Safe? Read More . But as I am fond of saying, some security is better than none. Never ever consider putting your credit card information, bank account information, password, PIN, into a non-https page. It’s just too risky, as that information can then be intercepted en route and captured.

A HTTPS page on the other hand is rather more secure and can protect your information from being stolen by a third-party. Also, make sure that there is a small padlock next to the https URL. That padlock shows that you are not on a spoofed page.


How to Safely Buy Online with Privacy & Security httpspadlock

Don’t Click On Links Inside Emails – No Matter How Authentic It Looks

How to Safely Buy Online with Privacy & Security emaillink

If you check your email spam What Everybody Ought to Know About Dealing With Email Spam It might be next to impossible to stop spam completely, but it's certainly possible to reduce its flow to a trickle. We outline some of the different measures you can take. Read More folder on any given day, you will most probably find emails from people claiming to be What Exactly Is Phishing & What Techniques Are Scammers Using? I’ve never been a fan of fishing, myself. This is mostly because of an early expedition where my cousin managed to catch two fish while I caught zip. Similar to real-life fishing, phishing scams aren’t... Read More Paypal, your bank, Facebook 5 Tips & Tricks To Avoid Facebook Phishing Scams Read More , eBay, Google New Phishing Scam Uses Scarily Accurate Google Login Page You get a Google Doc link. You click it, then sign in to your Google account. Seems safe enough, right? Wrong, apparently. A sophisticated phishing setup is teaching the world another online security lesson. Read More , whoever. They always tell you that your account is being suspended, and that all you have to do is click this very helpful link, enter your login details, and everything will be hunky-dory. Yeah…. do you really need me to tell you not to click that link?

But I would go one step further and say not to click any links in any emails whatsoever. It doesn’t matter who it claims to be from – whether it’s Amazon, the lottery, or Santa Claus. Go to the website, manually type in the URL, and find what you need. Over-cautious? Maybe, but how does having your identity stolen 6 Warning Signs Of Digital Identity Theft You Shouldn't Ignore Identity theft isn't too rare of an occurrence these days, yet we often fall into the trap of thinking that it'll always happen to "someone else". Don't ignore the warning signs. Read More suit you instead?


Check To See If The Website Lists a Real Address & Phone Number

How to Safely Buy Online with Privacy & Security openingtimes

When ordering from a site which is not so well known, one thing you can do to check the person’s bonafides is to see if they have listed a real world address and phone number. Now you are probably saying that anyone can write any address. But there are some basic things you can check out with those details.

  • Check Out The Storefront On Google Maps Street View – see how the shop looks. Does it look like a professional business or is it a boarded-up shack? If you enter the address and it turns out to be in the middle of a river, then it’s Houston, we have a problem.
  • Call The Phone Number – see if the number is real and if anyone answers. If they do, say you want to visit, and ask for the address. See if it matches the one on the site. If so, great. If not, run.
  • Check Them Out With Consumer Groups – armed with the address and phone number, check them out with consumer groups such as the Better Business Bureau, Citizens Advice Bureau, or your local equivalent. Two other sites to check are Epinions, and BizRate.

Check Out The Seller’s Online Reputation

If there’s one thing that online sellers fear the most, it’s negative feedback. Deserved or not, negative feedback can destroy an online business, and the owner’s reputation. That’s why the most powerful tool, when getting crappy service on eBay, was to threaten a negative feedback. Because it’s then out there, and very difficult to erase or conceal. Then again, you could be this criminal character, and not care.

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So before entrusting your hard-earned money to the Acme Corporation for that rocket on wheels, you should first run the name of the company and the name of the owner through the search engines. See what people are saying. Just ignore anything said by a Mr W.Coyote. He’s kind of biased, and not in a good way.

Look For Some Kind Of Professional Seal

How to Safely Buy Online with Privacy & Security seal

Er….no, not that kind of seal. I was meaning more this kind :

How to Safely Buy Online with Privacy & Security professionalseals


Companies can place these logos on their site if they abide by a certain set of rigorous rules and standards. Make sure that the logos link to the sites that own them, namely TRUSTe and the Better Business Bureau. And check with them to make sure that the merchant really is authorized to use the logos. Dishonest merchants have been known to use the logos without permission.

Use Disposable Credit Card Numbers

How to Safely Buy Online with Privacy & Security paypalcard

This is one I have never personally used, but I have heard great things about it from other people. It involves using a temporary credit card number (sometimes called a Virtual Credit Card), good for only one purchase. Then the number expires and can never be used again. The company behind the temporary credit cards then bills your real card. That way, your credit card number can never be stolen and exploited by online thieves masquerading as shop owners.

One recommended company that offers temporary credit card numbers as a paid premium feature is Abine. There’s also Bank of America ShopSafe, and Apple Pay How To Use Apple Pay To Buy Things With Your iPhone Your iPhone may some day be the only device you need to purchase products and services, but first you need to start using Apple Pay. Read More . Paypal offers a pre-paid credit card, which is obviously not a temporary card, but if the balance is small and limited, then any potential fallout from a theft will also be limited.

I’ve heard that Citibank and Discover also offer temporary cards, but I was unable to find details on their websites. Maybe you know more about this and can provide details in the comments?

I have to stress that I have not tried these services, so I can’t say for 100% certainty if any are bad or not. Check them out thoroughly before using any of them. Plus, they are most likely confined to North America (as usual).

Use Paypal For Buyer Protection

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People like to complain about Paypal, but one thing they are invaluable for is Buyer Protection. This means if you use Paypal to pay for something online – and you end up getting ripped off – then Paypal will act as a mediator between you and the seller. If all else fails, Paypal will refund the money to you.

But for Paypal to help, you MUST file the complaint within 180 days of the purchase (6 months). There are so many terms and conditions, it’s better if you read the official Paypal page.

As I said, people like to tear strips off Paypal, but in the 12 years I have been using them, they have NEVER let me down once. Every seller complaint was dealt with promptly, and refunds made where appropriate.

Have Packages Sent To a Post Office Box Address

How to Safely Buy Online with Privacy & Security postofficebox

There are many advantages to opening a Post Office box in your area. Here are the top two.

  • It Keeps Your Purchases Private – maybe you don’t want the postman or the nosy neighbors to see what you are buying? Or perhaps you don’t want to end up as a marketing statistic because you bought a certain item? Sending it to a PO Box can disconnect you and the item (especially if you open the box in an anonymous sounding business name).
  • It Keeps Your Purchases Safe – thefts from mailboxes are always rife, especially mailboxes that are on the street. If a package is sticking out the box, it is all so easy to grab it and run. Having it sent to a PO box protects it.

The three downsides are that it costs money to open the box and maintain it, the box can be closed if the post office determines that you are not using the box enough, and of course you have to go collect the mail yourself, instead of the postman bringing it to you. But hey, who said we lived in a perfect world?

Create An Online Persona For Shopping & Webforms

How to Safely Buy Online with Privacy & Security paperbag

The last thing you need is to sign up for a website, and then for said website to sell your private information to a data broker. That’s why you need to set up an online persona The 2 Best Sites For Coming Up With A Fake ID On The Internet Be it for whatever purpose, I bet you've used some form of a fake identity or throwaway account online. It's natural to want to have a bit of anonymity in certain behaviors and there's nothing... Read More and stick to it religiously. Make a fake name or fake company name (make sure the name is on the mailbox if you’re using it for online purchases), fake date of birth, and a post office box address. Then chuckle as you think to yourself how the data broker is paying for bogus information.

If you can’t think of these details by imagination, then a site such as Fake Name Generator will do all the work for you. They’ll even tell you what your favorite color is.

Use Common Sense!

The final piece of best advice I can offer you is this – if the offer is too good to be true, then listen to your gut and walk away. Nothing in life is for free, so if the seller is offering something fabulously good, then your default reaction should be “something’s not right here”, and look elsewhere for that can of mace. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Online shopping is a fantastic convenience, and is getting better and better. However, criminals are out there exploiting people and stealing identities and credit card numbers. Don’t be a sad victim. Be a happy shopper.

Do you have any other online shopping tips to keep people safe and secure? If so, let it rip in the comments!

Image Credits: Young Couple With Bags Over Heads – Shutterstock, Rows Of Gold Post Office Boxes – Shutterstock

Related topics: Encryption, Online Privacy, Online Shopping.

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  1. Lehlohonolo
    May 20, 2015 at 7:00 am

    Thanks Mark.
    This article is worth sharing with my mates.

    • Mark O'Neill
      May 20, 2015 at 10:19 am

      Glad you liked it. Please share through social media and let even more people know :-)

      Knowledge is power.

  2. rghdrft
    May 20, 2015 at 5:48 am

    Been using Citibank VAN's (Virtual Account Numbers for several years and have used quite a few. On at least 2 occasions there was an attempt by someone else to use the number but all they got was declined!

    Citibank offers 2 types - one time only use that are good for 30 days. The other one allows you to set an amount and date, 12 mos max. and is only valid for the same vendor - useful for advance registration type events and for recurring payments to a vendor.

    • Mark O'Neill
      May 20, 2015 at 10:19 am

      Great, I knew Citibank did them! Do you have a link for anyone wishing to apply for one of these cards?

    • rghdrft
      May 20, 2015 at 5:03 pm

      It's a benefit tied to a regular Citibank card. You generate the VANs as many as you need when you need them - done online when logged onto yor account. Not sure it's available as a stand alone option.

  3. dragonmouth
    May 19, 2015 at 9:56 pm

    "Check Out The Seller’s Online Reputation"
    eBay ratings are not as reliable as one might think. One needs to read the feedback comments. Since eBay requires feedback after every transaction, many buyers and sellers post a generic and meaningless "A good eBayer" comments. Also eBay discourages negative feedback, especially about their bigger sellers. AFAIAC, it looks a little bit suspicious when a seller with 10k+ feedbacks has only 5 or 10 negative ones. Yes, he could be that good but on the other hand just by pure chance there should be more. In addition, the few times I posted negative feedback, I was "encouraged" by a message from eBay to moderate my comments to something more neutral.

    • Mark O'Neill
      May 20, 2015 at 10:18 am

      You were encouraged to change your feedback? That's a new one for me. I knew eBay was becoming less trustworthy than they used to be, but getting you to change your feedback? Wow.....just wow.

      I hope you ignored it and left the feedback as it was?

    • dragonmouth
      May 20, 2015 at 12:51 pm

      It was nothing so blatant as "You must change...." It was subtle as "ABC has an otherwise good rating..." or "Are you sure you can't work it out?" As both a buyer and a seller, I've had this feedback policy work for me and against me.

      While this has little to do with shopping online, there is currently a big stink in the US about companies, mostly hotels, suppressing negative comments from dissatisfied customers by charging them an extra night's stay.

  4. Paul R.
    May 19, 2015 at 8:16 pm

    I'm big on not clicking on links in emails. I have a bookmarks folder named Financial that has all the financial institutions I do business with. When I want to see something, I take 3 seconds more (than clicking on an email) and click on the link in the bookmark. That makes it easy for me to avoid the temptation of clicking on emails.

    I recall in the early days of the internet, using those disposable cc numbers religiously. Now, since most of everything I buy is on amazon, best buy, or target, I rarely buy anything online that isn't from one of those sites, so its not that big a deal. In fact, if I find something from a small business, I actually look for that same product (from that seller) on amazon. Most small business sites have an amazon storefront. Amazon has a customer is always right policy that is very tough to beat.

    But when I do buy from a new seller, I go to a site like or even Yelp if I have to, to find some type of review system. I'm sure that some positive ratings/reviews of businesses are fake (paid for buy that business), but I do come across enough negative ones to make me think that some are genuine.

  5. handyman4848
    May 19, 2015 at 8:07 pm

    If one sets up an "online persona" with a fake name and a PO box address you still need to pay for your purchase and you must use a real identity to do that. (Paypal, credit card etc.) Thus the data broker does get access to your personal info.

    • Mark O'Neill
      May 19, 2015 at 8:51 pm

      Not if you use a trusted friend's credit card or Paypal account. Then you just pay the friend back.

      Or some online stores also still accept money orders - which doesn't reveal your name (order online, post the MO in).

      Virtual credit cards also don't require your personal information, from what I can gather from online research.