With gift-giving season officially in full swing in the United States (and at least a few other places, I presume), I figured this would be a great time to discuss safe shopping tactics. I don’t feel like this needs any sort of real introduction, it’s pretty self-explanatory, so let’s begin.
Pay with cash in person. In general using your card is a bad idea for both security and privacy. In addition to the risk of having your card number stolen, there’s also the privacy invasion of having banks selling your shopping habits. Both of these risks can be eliminated completely by simply paying cash wherever possible. This also helps if you’re buying a gift for someone who has access to your bank statements (significant other, parent, etc). They can’t see how much you spent or where.
For online transactions, use pre-paid cards or card-masking services like Privacy.com and Blur to avoid having your real information stolen. Be aware that Privacy.com essentially functions as a bank, so they will ask for some personal information that some people may not be comfortable with. Blur is a little less invasive, but you’re basically just creating digital pre-paid cards. Personally I’m a fan of Privacy.com for a lot of reasons, but this isn’t the time or place. Feel free to check out their site and see if it’s right for you.
Use HTTPS. HTTPS is a powerful and effective encryption method for data-in-transit (aka web traffic) that helps protect your sensitive information as it shoots across the web. The vast majority of the internet is now securely encrypted but why take any unnecessary risks? The web browser plugin HTTPS Everywhere will automatically ensure an HTTPS connection wherever it’s offered, regardless of search engine or browser settings.
Use a VPN. VPNs are popular for people looking to change their location online to do things like get around country restrictions on YouTube or Netflix, but they can also serve a number of other purposes, such as providing additional encryption and security, especially if you're a fan of using public wifi such as the library or coffee shops.
Use a PO Box. PO Boxes can serve tons of great purposes that you didn’t even know you needed. For starters, they start off inexpensive, in some places as little as $20/year. They can be handy because your packages don’t sit unguarded on your porch while you’re at work, they sit safely inside the building of your box. And of course, you don’t have to worry about some stranger on the internet snagging your home address, whether that’s the random person on Etsy, the rogue employee at Amazon, or the hacker who hopefully didn’t steal your information because you already implemented the above bullet points.
Don’t quit on December 26. The thing about these habits is that they’re great year-round, not just around the holidays. Shopping is something we do all the time, all year, and these strategies can be implemented there, too. You can pay cash at the grocery store. HTTPS and VPN encryption can protect your Facebook login just as much as your card number. Online data breaches are quickly becoming a daily occurrence, so using card-masking can prevent your card number from getting permanently posted to the dark web (if you’re not worried about that, clearly you’ve never had the hassle of updating EVERY service you use after a card number changed for any reason). Even a PO Box can be a neat thing to have on hand if you rent and move in the same area frequently, if you need an address on file for work (again, data breaches), or freelance and need somewhere to send checks or a return address for merchandise you sell.
Take some time to think about which of these strategies can benefit you most. HTTPS and VPNs are things that take just a few minutes to set up and you never have to think about them again. A PO Box can be easily added into your routine by renting one nearby or on your way to/from work (if you have a concern about stalkers, you may want to consider getting one in a nearby town instead). Cash can be handy as well to help you stick to a budget. I hope these tips help keep you safer online this holiday season, and good luck finding that perfect gift!