Safe Shopping: 2021 Edition
I always say that the privacy and security landscapes are constantly evolving, so it seems only fitting that my annual “safe shopping” blog post should become a yearly tradition.
With gift-giving season officially beginning in the United States (and at least a few other places, I presume), I figure this would be a great time to discuss safe shopping tactics. I don’t feel like this needs any sort of real introduction, it’s pretty self-explanatory, so let’s begin.
Pay with cash in person. There’s a large push for card usage in the US, and it has some personal finance benefits. Cards often come with cashback and purchase protection, and while the risk of skimming still exists, fintech (financial technology) security has come a long way. However, cards are still a privacy nightmare. Your shopping data will absolutely be sold by your bank to data brokers. As such, cash is king. But if you need some less-crazy, more practical reasons to use cash: if you’re buying a gift for someone who has access to your bank statements (significant other, parent, etc) it can help shield your purchases – both the site and the amount – and keep the gift a surprise. Furthermore, holiday spending and gift giving is often a source of debt in the new year, so using cash will help you stick to your budget. Personally I think racking up a boatload of new debt is a really crappy way to start the new year.
Of course, online shopping has long been popular, and even moreso this year. For online transactions, use pre-paid cards (such as the Vanilla card) or card-masking services like Privacy.com, MySudo, Blur, Revolut or LastCard to avoid having your real information stolen. If a scammer steals your information, the effects could be as minimal as having to get a new card or as serious as draining your bank account, stealing your identity, or even stalking you. Be aware that all of these services have to adhere to various Know Your Customer laws, so they will ask for some personal information that some people may not be comfortable with. I have a comparison of these different services here so you can find the one for you.
Use a masked email address. All that online shopping data will be sold to anyone and everyone you can imagine. By using a masked email address, you're getting a number of advantages. First, you can break up your “marketing profile” by making it harder (but not impossible) for companies to correlate purchases (if you use the same email/card on two websites, that's obviously you). Second, you can more easily control phishing – and more practically, spam. Once an address gets sold or leaked and starts getting Nigerian prince emails or nonstop marketing “here's other crap you don't care about” messages, you can simply shut it off. Poof! Goodbye spam! Finally, you make it harder for a malicious actor to track you across multiple sites or know which email service you use to attack you. Email forwarding services are a subtle but powerful tool in the data privacy and protection arsenal.
Use a PO Box. PO Boxes can serve tons of great purposes that you didn’t even know you needed. For starters, they start off inexpensive, in some places as little as $20/year. They can be handy because your packages don’t sit unguarded on your porch while you’re at work, they sit safely inside the building of your box. And of course, you don’t have to worry about some stranger on the internet snagging your home address, whether that’s the random person on Etsy, the rogue employee at Amazon, or the cybercriminal who hopefully didn’t steal your information because you already implemented the above bullet points.
Don’t quit on December 26. The thing about these habits is that they’re great year-round, not just around the holidays. Shopping is something we do all the time, all year, and these strategies can be implemented there, too. You can pay cash at the grocery store. Forwarding email addresses can be used year-round to manage newsletters, giveaways, various accounts you use, etc. Online data breaches are quickly becoming a daily occurrence, so using card-masking can prevent your card number from getting permanently posted to the dark web (if you’re not worried about that, clearly you’ve never had the hassle of updating EVERY service you use after a card number changed for any reason). Even a PO Box can be a neat thing to have on hand if you rent and move in the same area frequently, if you need an address on file for work (again, data breaches), or freelance and need somewhere to send checks or a return address for merchandise you sell.
Take some time to think about which of these strategies can benefit you most. The email masking services I recommend offer apps and plugins for quick,easy use in your day-to-day. A PO Box can be easily added into your routine by renting one nearby or on your way to/from work (if you have a concern about stalkers, you may want to consider getting one in a nearby town instead). Cash can be handy as well to help you stick to a budget. I hope these tips help keep you safer online this holiday season, and good luck finding that perfect gift!