Photo © Koray ISIK

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.

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Elizabeth Rogers