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Protect yourself when shopping online

Many women love to shop. Be it hunting down the perfect pair of heels or scouring the stores for an ideal evening gown, shopping is often a far bigger thrill for women than it is for men.

Since the dawn of the Internet, more and more women have embraced online retailers, choosing to forgo crowded malls or department stores in favor of shopping online from the comfort of home. As easy as online shopping can be, it also comes with more risk to a shopper's privacy than shopping in person at a nearby store. Those privacy issues continue to concern online shoppers, many of whom are reticent to share personal information over the Internet for fear of falling victim to identity theft. In fact, a 2008 survey from Pew Internet found that 75 percent of Internet users do not like giving out their credit card number or other personal information online. Those fears are warranted, but women can take certain measures to better protect themselves when shopping online.

* Use only secure Web sites when shopping online. The best thing women can do to protect their privacy when shopping online is to shop only from secure Web sites. Such sites employ encryption technology that transfers a consumer's information from her computer to the online retailer's computer, scrambling the information, including a shopper's credit card number, along the way to prevent hackers from accessing those details.

A secure Web site will have a slightly different URL than one that is not secure. Instead of beginning with "http://", a secure Web site's URL begins with "https://". The "s" lets consumers know the Web site is secure. In addition, look for a closed padlock at the bottom of the screen, which is another indicator that a Web site is secure.

* Know who you're buying from. Many women feel getting a good deal is a significant part of the thrill of shopping. While there's certainly deals to be had online, it's important women know who they're buying from before entering any personal information and placing any orders. Most shoppers feel safest when doing business only with those online retailers they're familiar with. However, sometimes it's necessary to buy from other Web sites. If so, research the site before making any purchases. A reputable online retailer will boast easily accessible customer service information, including a phone number consumers can call round-the-clock if they have any questions or concerns.

* Shop with a credit card. Laws exist in both the United States and Canada to protect online shoppers from fraud if their purchases are made with credit cards. Americans, for instance, are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act, which gives shoppers the right to dispute charges on their credit card and withhold payment while the disputed charges are investigated. Use this protection to your advantage by using only credit cards to make online purchases. Do not use debit cards, even if they have logos of credit card companies. Using a debit card could potentially expose your bank account to hackers and thieves, which can prove disastrous if hackers successfully access your account. What's more, purchases made with debit or ATM cards are not protected like purchases made with credit cards.

* Play things close to the vest. Online retailers will likely request a host of information, only some of which is necessary to complete a purchase. Shoppers don't have to answer questions about their lifestyle, income or other personal information that has nothing to do with their actual purchase. Volunteering information about lifestyle or income often leads to spam e-mail that targets shoppers based on their responses to unnecessary inquiries when buying items online. Only fill out the bare minimum amount of information when checking out.

* Try to shop domestic. Shopping domestic, or buying exclusively from retailers located within your own country, is another way shoppers can protect themselves from fraud. Laws that protect consumers may only apply to purchases made within the same country. In addition, items bought online from another country are likely to cost more money to ship.

A 2010 report from the Nielsen Company revealed that women are more engaged in many online purchase categories, including clothes, travel and home accessories, than their male counterparts. As women continue to rely on the Internet for their purchases, they must also continue to focus on protecting their privacy.