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4 Tips to Protect Your Identity While Shopping Online

If you're lost in a flurry of holiday gift wish lists and dreading a trip to the crowded mall, you're probably considering the convenience of shopping online. If so, you're not alone. With each passing year, more Americans are opting to do their holiday shopping from the convenience of their home computer, and that trend is expected to strengthen this year.

As popular as online shopping is, it also poses some inherent risks. While many retailers take pains to protect their customers, some of the responsibility for keeping your identity and personal information safe lies in your own hands. By learning to take these precautions during the busiest online retail season—when identity thieves are on the prowl—you'll develop good habits that will benefit you throughout the year and help you avoid identity theft.

1. Look at the address.
If you're shopping on a website and you've hit the "checkout" button, you should see a change in the Web address at the top of your browser. If the site you're shopping on is equipped with security layers, you should see "http" change to "https", and you might also see a small padlock icon, depending on your browser. If you don't see either of those things, or get an alert that your information is unencrypted and could be viewed by a third party, take your purchases elsewhere—it's not worth the risk.

2. Be careful about the information you give out.
We're often asked for our email addresses, ZIP codes and shopping habits online—while these can seem like innocent questions, they're often used to create a profile of you for marketing purposes. And in the wrong hands, all of that information about what you like and how you shop can provide clues that are helpful in stealing your identity. Think carefully about whether you need to answer a question, and how the information you provide could be used. In almost every case, you should avoid giving out your Social Security number online—if a shopping site asks for it, move on.

3. Monitor yourself.
To keep track of how your personal information is being used, consider signing up for a credit monitoring service. With this service, you will be notified if anyone signs up for an account in your name or with your personal information. Throughout the shopping season, keep a close eye on your bank account to make sure that the purchases that are logged are ones you've made. It's also a good idea to make the effort to check your own credit reports sporadically throughout the year for illicit activity.

4. Change your passwords.
It's good to switch your log-in passwords every so often, but now is an ideal time to make the effort. Making a change can be hard, because you should ideally be using a variety of passwords, all of which are hard to guess and contain a variety of characters—and it's not easy to remember all of them. However, consider which is worse—taking the time to memorize a few new passwords or dealing with the repercussions of having your identity stolen?