As you might expect, I get many questions from computer users concerned about their security. With regular news of identity theft, credit card fraud, and database hacking, many people are understandably concerned about the security of their own information online, particularly when it comes to online shopping …
… so much so, that some actively avoid online shopping for fear of having their payment information stolen.
In my opinion, they should be more concerned about the security of their information off-line.
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Online shopping is ubiquitous
Most of us now take online shopping for granted. I suspect some may even wonder that this article is needed at all.
The fact is, there are still many people who are afraid to shop at online merchants – even well-known, reputable ones.
Why? They’re convinced that the internet is full of hackers just waiting to steal their credit card information as it goes by. They’re quite willing to give that same payment information – along with an image of their signature, no less – to a stranger at a restaurant or a grumpy clerk in a retail store.
Risk versus risk
As I wrote in another article, “most people have an over-inflated sense of risk when it comes to threats they don’t understand”.
On top of that, we’re most comfortable with black and white absolutes: yes or no, safe or not safe. Unfortunately, the world isn’t black or white.
It’s very important to realize that there are risks either way, online or off.
Unique risks online are few
There are very few risks that are truly unique to using your credit card online.
Yes, online shopping security issues exist. Your device could have malware in the form of a keylogger, which records everything you type. And yes, it’s extremely rare, but your connection to an online merchant could be intercepted by someone watching and recording your payment information.1
Much more common, however, are things that apply regardless of how you use your credit card. The news reports we hear are major breaches at retailers and banks, where it doesn’t matter if you used your card online or off. In fact, most of those break-ins are caught and dealt with so quickly that if you or I are affected, it’s only to the extent that we might unexpectedly get a replacement credit card.
Offline risk is more common
I believe individual theft occurs more frequently off-line.
- A clerk might make a copy of your card and signature.
- A dumpster diver could grab your bank statements out of your trash.
- Someone might steal your new credit card out of your mail box.
- You use your card at a cash machine, but a thief has hidden a “card skimmer” on the reader that steals the information on your card as you use it.
These off-line methods are all much more common than individual online theft.
And even though we seem to hear about online theft on a semi-regular basis, there’s a strong argument that says they’re still fairly rare occurrences, compared to the millions of cardholders and millions of transactions that happen every day.
Good sense implies good security
The fact is, regardless of how you use it, using your credit card represents risk. But then, so does getting out of bed in the morning.
Online or off:
- Shop with merchants you know and trust.
- Watch for things out of place, be it something odd about the card reader in a store, or a missing https padlock on a web site.
- Beware of phishing and other attempts to fool you into giving your personal information to those who would abuse it.
- Contact your credit card company whenever you think something may have happened.
My take is simple: shop online. I believe it to be generally safer than many physical in-person transactions. Online or offline, the risks are generally lower than you might believe.
Don’t let unfounded fear stop you from enjoying the convenience. I know I don’t.