Avoid the lump of coal in your holiday shopping carts

If you plan to get jolly at your computer this holiday season shopping for online deals, beware. Internet scammers are lurking, just waiting for the opportunity to fill your stocking with a big ol' lump of coal.

Now more than ever, online shoppers must be vigilant.

"There are people in law enforcement who will admit off the record that the bad guys are probably about five years ahead of the good guys right now," said Adam Levin, a consumer credit and fraud expert at Credit.com. "People tend to take convenience over security."

In the rush and thrill of finding outstanding deals online, shoppers sometimes click on links they shouldn't — or spend money on goods they will never see.

To avoid getting scammed online this holiday season, take a slightly slower and steadier approach. Avoid websites you've never heard of in favor of better-known outlets. If you see a great deal on a seemingly obscure site, take a few moments to open a new browser and research the site. What have other consumers said about it? Are there complaints? Is it legitimate?

Complete the purchase only on secure websites, those with an "s" at the end of the "http" and a padlock to the right of the URL. If the site has a padlock, double-click on it to make sure it has a digital certificate. For instance, the padlock for Amazon.com says the connection to that company's website is encrypted — in other words, safe.

Be careful when typing in a company's name. Sneaky scam artists sometimes buy up Web addresses with common misspellings of popular companies, then create separate websites designed to fool consumers.

"That's when they ask you for information you may well be sorry you gave out," Levin said.

Be stingy with your personal information. If a company sends you an e-mail with a link to its website, do not click the link. In some cases, scam artists will send e-mails that look like they're from legitimate companies, but when you click the link, the scam artist installs malware on your computer, or gobbles up your personal information for ill purposes. Always type in a company's Web address on your own.

Angie Hicks of Angie's List advises reading the fine print and description on all products before buying them. When you shop in a retail store you can talk to a salesperson and touch or view a product, but when you shop online you're taking a leap of faith. Print out the product description and the return policy. Make sure you will be able to return a product if you're not happy with it — or if a friend or loved one already has it.

When buying a product online, always use your credit card, not a debit card. Under terms of the Fair Credit Billing Act, you are not responsible for fraudulent purchases of more than $50 made using your credit card number, and most credit card companies will erase the first $50 as well. The same protections are not guaranteed for debit cards. In essence, if a thief gets your debit card number, he or she has direct access to your bank account.

Keep records of every purchase. If the online company sends you a confirmation e-mail, print it out. If you don't get the e-mail, print the page that confirms you made a purchase. It serves as your receipt.

Under no circumstances should you send payment information via e-mail.

"It's not secure," Levin said. "If someone manages to hack into your system, via Wi-Fi or some other system, they can access your information."

Most of all, slow down. Remember, if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. In most cases, you can find sale items offered at several different websites. Go with one you trust.