Today I read that the FBI reports internet crime more than doubled last year. People who normally lock their car doors buy frequently online, complete all their banking over the web and pay bills routinely using their keyboard. Internet transactions are an easy way for crooks to steal bank account numbers, credit card information and other personal data. Maybe it’s time to sit back and think for a moment about protecting yourself while you’re banking and shopping on the internet.

My goal isn’t to frighten anyone away from online transactions. Truthfully, in this busy world it would seem silly to avoid shopping or banking online. In many ways, online transactions help people with fiscal responsibility. It’s easier to stay within your spending plan. You have time to carefully consider transactions without a sales clerk pressuring you to purchase before “the sale ends.” You can easily monitor financial activities and spot trends. Working online isn’t the enemy. Completing financial transactions without thinking about protecting yourself is the problem. It’s like walking around the mall with a wad of cash hanging from your back pocket. There’s only a matter of time until someone steals from you.

Here are two realities about shopping online: First, if you aren’t shopping or banking much on the internet now, you will in the future. It’s only going to become more prevalent. Second, as more transactions move online, more thieves move online also. It would surprise me if internet crime didn’t double again next year.

It’s definitely time to protect yourself. But how?

Here are some tips to keep your money safe while you’re working online:

  1. Never shop or bank on public computers. These are complex machines that have the ability to store your credit card information so someone else can grab it later. You’re also asking for trouble if you use public wireless internet services, such as wi-fi available at coffee houses, restaurants, and the library. Criminals know how to penetrate these networks and monitor your transactions to steal your identity.
  2. Be creative with passwords. Using the same password for your bank account or ATM that you use for Amazon or eBay is asking for trouble. Avoid using your birthdate, Social Security number, or mother’s maiden name. These are so overused that criminals can easily find and exploit those passwords.
  3. Change your passwords periodically like you’d change the batteries in your smoke alarm. Sometimes criminals will gain access to your passwords but not use them immediately so they’re more difficult to track. Changing your password could foil an attempt at stealing your money.
  4. If your computer suddenly displays a pop-up window telling you that your computer is unsafe, don’t click on the link. These messages could install programs on your computer that allow thieves access to your files.
  5. Don’t click links sent in unsolicited emails, even if they mention retailers you trust or your bank. These scams are becoming more prevalent, and are called “phishing” expeditions. A crook lifts a well-known logo from a company many people trust and sends a blanket email telling you that your password is out of date and you’ll need to follow the link to change it. The link will send you to a very official looking website asking you for personal information. Believing it’s authentic, people hand over their birthdate, Social Security Number, bank account, credit card information and more. The thieves who were “phishing” caught a nice one!
  6. Only shop from well-known, reputable retailers that you trust. Look for signs of encryption when making purchases online, such as a lock symbol on your internet browser. Although this doesn’t guarantee your safety, it means the business you’re working with worries about internet safety and has safeguards in place to help protect your identity and financial information.

The National Retail Federation reported in their “Back to School” survey this year that 12 percent more people were shopping online for school supplies this year than last year. I expect that holiday shopping will follow this trend as more people become comfortable with internet retail. If you’re one of these people increasing your internet shopping this year, consider these measures I’ve listed above to make sure your online transactions go smoothly.