As I said in Keep Calm and Log On, when shopping online, there are a few distinct questions to consider to protect your digital valuables. One is how to protect your most valuable information—in this case, your financial information. The other is more of a privacy question: do I really want these sites to build a profile on me, so they can sell me more things?
The first thing to do is get any saved financial information out of your web browser. I know, I know: this is going to make it less convenient for you when you need to shop. But honestly, web browsers are not safe places to save financial information, or passwords. It is too easy for a site to trick you into giving them out, or for someone to break in and steal them.
A dedicated, secure password manager is a better way to save your passwords and credit card information. Get a password manager set up, then turn off “form autofill” — do the opposite of the “turn on” instructions for Microsoft Edge, Chrome, Safari (on iOS and Mac), and/or Firefox.
Instead of entering your credit card number on a site, whenever possible use PayPal, Zelle, or a service provided by your credit card company (for example, Verified by Visa or Mastercard SecureCode). These are generally more secure than some random website you find.
To further protect your financial information, go through the steps in these guides:
One of the most effective ways to stop businesses from tracking you is to use a protective browser or your browser’s “private browsing” feature; here’s how.
If you just want to keep different parts of your online life separate—say, keep your work sites from knowing your shopping history, or maintain different social media accounts—and you use the Firefox browser (which I recommend), you can make use of their container tabs feature. They even have a special container to keep Facebook from following you all over the web.
You know how some retailers ask for your phone number at checkout? That’s one way they build a profile on you. When you hear about how companies are tracking you all over the internet, be aware that they connect it to your shopping in person, too—and one way they do it is by asking for your phone number.
Know that you don’t have to give your phone number. Not even if you want to benefit from loyalty points. If you feel uncomfortable just saying “no” when they ask for your number, take the advice of a friend of mine: there’s a couple of well-known numbers you can give, and there’s probably already a loyalty account set up for them in your area code. One of these is 867-5309—the number for “Jenny” in a 1980s song by Tommy Tutone. My personal favorite is 606-0842—that’s from a B52s song. Don’t worry: you won’t get in trouble, this isn’t a legal issue.
Some people recommend swapping rewards numbers with others in order to get rewards but not let retailers develop a clear profile on you. This could work, but has some drawbacks—if you’re swapping with a total stranger, you don’t know what kind of creepy things they might be buying and attaching to your phone number. And it’s possible that those shopping records could be subpoenaed as part of a court case… and if your number is attached, things could start to get ugly. If you want to try to muddy the waters of a shopping profile attached to you, do what you may be doing already—share loyalty cards with friends and family.
You may not be aware, but there’s a booming business in making fake reviews for products online. Some shady sellers will actually go as far as to send you packages without you asking for them so you’ll leave them a review—a scam called “brushing” that the Better Business Bureau says could indicate the scammers have more information about you. (If you’re worried that’s the case, take these steps to protect against identity theft.)
If you’re not sure if the reviews you’re looking at are any good, paste the web address for the product into Fakespot. Their service runs an analysis on reviews and gives them a grade, so you can tell whether it’s likely the product is being reviewed by real customers or just by people (or robots!) the producer has paid to make them sound good. (I didn’t install Fakespot’s browser plugin; it asked for too many permissions, like my email address and the ability to see and change sites in my browser.)
Did you find this helpful? Order a copy of Keep Calm and Log On for more tips on digital privacy and security.