Online shopping sites are giving the big box stores a run for their money this holiday season.

Coremetrics reported in late November that CyberMonday sales surpassed Black Friday sales by 31.1 percent and increased 19.4 percent compared to CyberMonday sales last year. With three weeks to go, consumers still have time to take advantage of the convenience and buying power of online shopping.

Amidst the jingle of holiday spending, follow these tips for making the online shopping experience safe, easy and hassle-free:

· Protect all personal and financial information by updating all of the software on your computer, including Web browsers, firewalls and anti-virus, anti-spam and anti-spyware applications. Want added insurance? Download Microsoft® Security Essentials for free, or use other antivirus solutions.

· Shop only on reputable sites that use strong security and encrypt your data. Look for the padlock icon or “https://” at the beginning of Web addresses when processing your credit card data. Also look for a recognized third-party trust seal such as BBBOnline or TRUSTe or the green address bar in Internet Explorer 8 or 9 indicating a trustworthy site. It’s also a good idea to check for a physical address and telephone number of any online merchant with which you’re unfamiliar.

· Use Bing to find gifts, compare prices and find directions to the nearest retailer or merchant. If your kids are using the Web to search for presents, make sure to download the free Windows Live Family Safety 2011 tool. This ensures safer browsing, social networking and search experiences. The tool’s SafeSearch feature ensures children will not encounter inappropriate content while surfing the Web. Bing also offers a new social shopping list feature that lets you share wish lists with friends.

· Never disclose personal or financial information to any online merchant with which you are unfamiliar. Do not respond to any request to “update your account information” or any unsolicited e-mails requesting donations – they may be scams to steal your identity. This includes charities. If you receive a solicitation from one of your favorite charities or an account update request and are considering responding, do not click on the link. Instead, close the e-mail, open a new browser window and go directly to the organization’s website.

· Manage and safeguard personal information and passwords using a trusted and reliable authentication service such as WindowsLive ID. Or, set up a separate e-mail account dedicated to online shopping with a password distinct from your everyday account.

· Make sure all passwords contain at least eight characters and include letters, punctuation, symbols and numbers. It is also a good idea to have a different password for every website. In particular, never use any actual words for your password or any part of your identity (name, age, date of birth, etc.). While you should avoid sharing or writing down your passwords, it is important that you print out and save receipts for any online transactions.

· Use tools built into your Web browser – such as Internet Explorer 8’s SmartScreen Filter – to protect yourself against malicious software and phishing threats. SmartScreen Filter also alerts you if a site has been reported unsafe, and allows you to report any unsafe sites you encounter.

· Use IE’s InPrivate features to keep gifts a secret from friends and family members. InPrivate browsing makes sure browsing histories, temporary Internet files and cookies are not recorded on your PC after you close your browser. The feature also prevents third-party sites from monitoring your online behavior and habits to syndicate content or advertising.

· If buying a gift from an individual via an online shopping or auction site like eBay or Craigslist, follow the stated safety rules on the site and never disclose account information. A new scam is to ask for account information in order to deposit a ‘refund.’ That refund is more likely to be a large withdrawal.

Mobile phones and location-based services will play a fast-growing role in this year’s holiday shopping experience. According to the National Retail Federation, about 7 million American shoppers will use their mobile phones as a purchasing device this year—up from 4 million in 2009.

Retailers increasingly use location-based services to reach consumers with coupons, inventory updates, customer reviews and special deals. Consumers are also doing more “social shopping” this holiday season.

For example, cell phone users can “check-in at the mall” via Facebook Places or FourSquare to access discounts, coupons and loyalty rewards offered by a growing number of retailers. However, most mobile phones enable users to turn off location-based services if they wish.

Today, more consumers than ever use the Web to plan holiday celebrations and enhance their shopping experiences. That said, it’s vital that they understand that technology has limitations and common sense goes a long way in helping keep you and your family safe online.

Posted by Julie Inman-Grant,
Director of Privacy and Internet Safety Outreach, Trustworthy Computing