Just in time for the holiday shopping season, here are some savvy tips to shop securely online.

Ah, the joys of online shopping — skip the crowds, shop whenever you want, avoid the parking space nightmares and forget running here and there to find the best prices. It’s no surprise that Canadian consumers spend billions of dollars online each year.

However, there are potential disadvantages to this convenience, like poor customer service, shipping costs and additional fees. As online shopping grows in popularity, fraud and identify theft are also on the rise — costing consumers a hefty chunk of change and time.

Here’s how to dodge the hassles when you hit the online stores:

Update your software. Your computer’s firewall, internet browser, anti-virus and anti-spyware programs offer some protection against the viruses and other malware you might encounter, but you’ll need to keep them current with the latest updates and patches. (Not sure if you need to update? Look under the “Help” menu for an item that says “Check for updates”.) You might want to run your anti-virus and anti-spyware scans a little more often this time of year.

Shop from a trusted computer. Experts agree that it’s best to avoid internet cafes and kiosks in public places when you’re placing an order because someone could be “listening in” on your connection, or they could retrieve the information you’ve sent. Stick to your home computer where you control the settings and the security of the connection.

Deal with sites you trust. Many people tend to shop at stores they know, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reach out to smaller businesses. Ask your friends and family for recommendations, or do a little research on the store or organization first. Look for online reviews or news about the retailer, and always make sure you have key information like the company’s physical address and contact information.

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Pay on secure servers. It may look like a single website, but when you place an order you should be on a secure server (which has additional security measures like encryption) rather than the “public” one (where you browse and load up your online cart). How can you tell? Look for the padlock or key icon at the bottom of your browser window and “https” instead of “http” in the URL string. Look closely — an open padlock or broken key means you aren’t on a secure server.

In addition, you can often find out beforehand how the company protects your information. Look for wording like “Checkout pages are secured with Secure Socket Layer (SSL)” or certification logos from third party verification services like VeriSign or Entrust.

Guard your privacy. Even when you’re just browsing companies can collect valuable marketing information about what you look at and purchase. Look for the privacy policy or “terms of use” page to find out what information the company collects and how it is used. Some internet browsers like Safari have a “Private Browsing” function too, so it’s worth checking out the features.

Read (and save) the contracts. What responsibilities does the company have as a retailer, and what’s expected of you as a buyer? (For example, many users aren’t aware that they are legally responsible for any activities conducted using their account.) Look for the “terms of use”, “legal notices” or “conditions of use” links near the bottom of the page. You may want to save these terms for future reference too.

Know exactly what you’re buying. Take a close look at the picture and read through the accompanying product information so you’ll know what you’re ordering. Read through the product specifications, measurements, guarantees, warranties, certificates of authenticity/approval and options for materials and colours. Before you pay, carefully review your order information to ensure it’s correct.

And don’t forget to measure, especially if you’re buying clothing or shoes. Sizes differ from company to company so double check with the sizing charts for accuracy.

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Investigate payment options. Not all payment methods are created equal. Find out what consumer protection your debit and credit cards offer when you’re shopping online. (For instance, can you dispute charges you didn’t make if your number is stolen?) Many people use a single credit card with a low balance just for online shopping.

If you’re using a secure service like PayPal instead, make sure you know what fees and charges apply. Additionally, see if you can place an order over the phone instead or buy a gift card in the store to use online.

Beware additional costs. The price you see may be cheaper than in the store — but don’t forget to factor in taxes, shipping and handling charges, gift wrapping and any other applicable charges. If you’re shopping in an international store, watch out for currency exchange rates and fees on your credit card, not to mention duty or tariffs when the package crosses the border.

Understand the cancellation and return policies. Uh oh… you changed your mind or your package arrived damaged. Before you order, make sure you understand how to cancel an order and return items — particularly if there are time constraints or conditions that apply. If you don’t live near the store (or there isn’t a store available), then you may have to pay out of pocket for travel, return shipping costs or “restocking fees”.

What if the recipient wants to return or exchange your gift? The good news is that many sites offer special return policies for items ordered before Christmas — but they may have to be marked as gifts when the order is placed in order to qualify.

Note the shipping times. Forget last minute shopping! The fastest shipping methods are also the most expensive. Pay attention to estimated shipping times and order early to ensure your gift arrives before the big day. Many retailers post the order cut-off dates for guaranteed delivery before major holidays like Christmas.

Be aware of warranties. Did you know that if you buy an item from an international store the warranty might not be honoured here at home? Experts warn to be especially careful when it comes to warranties and policies regarding damaged or defective goods if they’re ordered outside the country.

Check up on customer service (before you need it). Most sites offer “self serve” help, but if you prefer to talk to a real person you’ll need to dig a little deeper. Find out what you can about what customer service is offered — like how to contact a representative (e.g. online chat, email or phone) and how long you can expect to wait for a response (e.g. 24 hours for an email request).

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Keep order confirmations. Online shopping is a business transaction, and your order confirmation is proof that you paid. Make sure to print, file or backup any order confirmation emails you receive and keep them for future reference.

Don’t respond to spam and phishing scams. To protect yourself, delete any suspicious emails, don’t open attachments and avoid clicking on links. Also, beware of emails claiming there’s a problem with your order or your account — they could be phishing scams. When in doubt, look up the company’s phone number through an independent source (like the phone book) and call their customer service department to straighten out any issues. (For more tips, see Email: What’s safe, and what isn’t.)

Another email safety tip: don’t use it to send personal or financial information. Experts warn that email doesn’t have built-in security protection like encryption, and it can be intercepted.

Finally, when you’re through take a moment to clear your cache to get rid of any cookies, passwords and webform information stored on your browser. Depending on your internet browser, you can usually find this setting on the “Tools” menu. Firefox users can use the “Clear Private Data” tool, and Internet Explorer users can access this feature under the “General” tab in “Internet Options”. Safari users can find the tool under the “Safari” heading.

It does take a little extra time and effort to stay safe shopping online, but by protecting your privacy and getting to know your retailers you can save a lot of time and hassle down the road.

Sources: Safeshopping.org (the American Bar Association), Consumerdirect.gov.uk, Deloitte.com, Ontario Ministry of Consumer Services.