If you don't know know the dangers of shopping online, you don't want to learn by experience. Massive amounts of money change hands each day via legal Internet commerce, but not all Internet commerce is legal and not all of it is safe. Digital citizenship is a code of conduct, and just as in the real world, the Internet world has its share of scammers out to get your money.
In other words, don't be misled by the appearance of legitimacy. It doesn't take long for a con artist to create a professional looking website, and once he's online he can sit back and let his victims come to him. Your best bet for staying safe is to shop with companies you know or ones that have been recommended by friends. If you're considering buying from a website that you're not familiar with, look for a phone number to call. If there's no phone number listed, or the phone goes to voicemail, rethink your purchase. Even if the company is legitimate, you always want to buy from a company that you will be able to contact if you have a problem. Another strategy is to search the company's name in a search engine to see if you find any unfavorable reviews.
Identity theft can occur if someone gets hold the information you enter when making an online purchase. Legitimate sites use technology to scramble your personal information so that only the seller and the credit card company can read it. If you know what to look for, your web browser will help you know if your information is being protected. At checkout, look at the URL in the address bar to make sure it changes from "http" to "https" ("s" = secure). A closed padlock icon or a picture of an unbroken key should also appear on the page. If you don't see either of these indicators, take your business elsewhere.
Credit cards and PayPal are the safest ways to buy online. Most credit cards have some level of protection, so if you are scammed you can dispute the charge. According to the Federal Trade Commission, your liability for unauthorized charges on your credit card is limited to $50. PayPal also covers qualifying purchases up to a set amount. Avoid paying online with a debit card that takes money directly from your bank account - if you're scammed you may never get your money back.
When entering personal information online, always ask yourself what information the company really needs. If a company is asking for your Social Security number, that's a huge red flag!