The truth is you didn't get a 60-inch LCD TV as a gift this holiday season. You'll have to buy it yourself. And most likely, you'll go to the last remaining big-box store, compare picture quality, and return home to your computer to find the best deal online.
Still feel a little nervous buying a big-ticket item over the InterWebs? Keep in mind it's at least as safe as handing your credit card to a complete stranger for five minutes every time you eat in a restaurant. Nonetheless, you can take several steps to reduce the risk.
The first rule is obvious: If a computer shows the slightest sign it could be infected, don't use it for any type of transaction. Telltale symptoms include weird slowdowns, system error messages, unexpected sounds, and alerts that a program you don't recognize is trying to connect to the Internet. The cure? It's painful: Back up all your data, do a clean re-install of the operating system, re-install your programs, restore your data, and begin anew.
Assuming that, one way or another, you're squeaky clean -- and you have the sense to avoid the most common cyber attacks -- you're ready for some personal shopping safety advice.
Stick with popular e-commerce sites
The most popular e-commerce sites have the best security and best reasons to protect your financial data. You can worry less right out of the gate. On the other hand, sometimes only an obscure site has the stuff you want. If you're poised to do business with an e-commerce site neither you nor your friends have heard of, use more caution. I often look for a local phone number to call. Calling and getting a human voice on the other end of the line doesn't mean the site is safe, but it does means you have another trackable presence to support its legitimacy.
Don't trust "safe" seals
Many computer security organizations offer "safety seals," which are supposed to indicate that an e-commerce site's security has been analyzed, verified, and approved. Unfortunately, the bad guys often steal or mimic these seals, and even when they're legitimate, they only mean the site met some very basic requirements at a particular point in time. Thousands of sites verified by safety seal services have ended up serving malware to customers or have had their customer databases stolen.
Don't leave credit card info behind
Most e-commerce sites offer to save your credit card information so that you can buy quicker next time. Unless you're on a site you purchase from all the time, say no. If the site doesn't store your credit card data, there's no way for a hacker to get it and use it.
Use websites that ask for info each time you use your card
I love e-commerce sites that always ask for some bit of information only I should know before they'll process my credit card. Many don't store all the digits of my credit card number and ask for me to fill in the missing ones -- or at least ask for my CVV code.