FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Shopping online can be an attractive alternative to the crowded malls, long checkout lines and unruly mobs of shoppers that have become regular fixtures of the modern holiday season.

Along with the convenience of buying presents from the warmth of a shopper's home, however, comes the threat of online scams and identity theft that could sour the holiday cheer. However, there are some easy ways people can protect themselves, their money and identities while shopping online.

"Safe online shopping starts with your computer," said Thomas Brindisi, Network Security Administrator with the Fort Rucker Network Enterprise Center. "Always keep it updated with the most recent patches." Typically, computers automatically download and install the latest security patches and updates, but people should manually check before they begin making purchases online.

"There is never a better time to have antivirus, anti-malware and anti-spyware software installed on your computer than when you are about to enter personal information on the Internet," said Wes Hamilton, Service Desk Supervisor for Fort Rucker. "Current DoD employees are authorized to download antivirus products from the (U.S. Army Computer Emergency Response Team)."

The ACERT website can be accessed at
Always make sure your Internet browser is up to date, Hamilton said. You can normally find the 'Check for Updates' option in your browser's 'Tools' or 'Help' menu items, so check regularly to ensure you have installed the latest updates and security patches.

Some browsers feature downloadable filters or plug-ins that will warn people if they attempt to visit a known phishing site. For more information, enter 'phishing filter' or 'smartscreen filter' into a search engine.

With the computer and browser fully updated, it's time to start shopping.

When it comes to buying online, shoppers should always be conscious of whom they are doing business with. Make sure you are buying from the right site, Hamilton said. Looks can be deceiving - just because it looks like the website you think you're on doesn't mean that it is.
Avoid clicking links sent to email addressed because they might be links to malicious phishing sites intent on stealing credit card information. People should manually enter the address into browsers if they know for what site they are looking.

Once the shopping cart is filled and it's time to checkout, take a look at the browser's address bar and look for a few signs that indicate the payment information is secure. Never give any personal or payment information to a Web site unless the address starts with HTTPS. Most Web site addresses (or URLs) begin with HTTP, but the 'S' in HTTPS is critical when it comes to online shopping. The 'S' indicates that the connection between the computer and the website the shopper is buying from is encrypted and secure.

The browser will also display a padlock or similar icon as a clear sign the shopper is visiting a legitimate, secured website.

Shop on a home network and never on a public network. You never know who is listening to wireless network traffic at the local coffeehouse, so avoid entering personal information when connected to a public network, Brindisi said.

When it comes to payment methods, credit cards typically offer the most consumer protection. Always use a credit card over a debit card. Credit card transactions are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act. This allows shoppers, under certain circumstances, to dispute charges and temporarily withhold payment while the creditor investigates. It also limits liability in the event of unauthorized charges.

Some credit card companies offer one time numbers. These are credit card numbers that are good for one use only. Check the credit card company's Web site or call the customer support line for details.

Be suspicious. People who have encountered a malicious Web site, have been a victim of online fraud or identity theft, should contact the state's Attorney General, the Better Business Bureau or visit for more information.