With "Cyber Monday" now in full swing, it's important to remember the potential hazards of online shopping.

Coined in 2005, the marketing term reflects an increase in computer-based sales on the Monday after Thanksgiving. But, the increased convenience and choice that shopping from your home computer brings, also means consumers need to take certain precautions when doing business in cyberspace.

"This is especially important during the holiday shopping season," says Janet Jenkins, administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Trade and Consumer Protection. "Scam artists are well aware of the increased Internet activity this time of year and may be 'phishing' for your personally identifiable information."

Protect yourself

Before making an online transaction, make sure your computer is protected by installing a firewall along with virus and spyware protection software. These tools will help combat hackers and identity thieves. Keep in mind some programs provide greater security protections than others so, explore your options.

While it is safest to shop from your own computer, if you need to use a public computer be certain it has encryption software to scramble the purchase information. In addition, Websites that begin with "HTTPS" are designed for payment and other sensitive transactions -- the "S" stands for secure.

"Scammers will continue to find new ways to beat technology," added Jenkins. "Being an informed consumer is always your best bet when it comes to protecting your pocketbook and your identity."

Online shopping safety tips

  • Know whom you are dealing with. ID thieves can create Websites that imitate and look like a legitimate business site. Don't trust a Website based solely on its appearance. Always confirm the online seller's information by looking up the business in your browser. If you're asked to provide your Social Security number, consider that a red flag. Legitimate merchants almost never require a SSN. Never give out personally identifiable information unless YOU initiate the contact and know you're dealing with a legitimate business.
  • Know exactly what you are buying. Read the fine print. Words like "refurbished”"or "close-out" may mean a product isn't what you think it is. Name-brand items with "too good to be true" prices could be counterfeits.
  • Know what it will cost. Visit other Websites for product price comparisons. Remember to figure in shipping and handling costs. Most importantly, never pay in cash! If you are the victim of fraud, the chances of getting your money back are slim to none.
  • Pay by credit or charge card. The Fair Credit Billing Act gives you the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while the credit card company investigates. Some companies also offer an online shopping guarantee that ensures you will not be held responsible for any unauthorized charges made online.
  • Check out the terms of the deal. Can you return the item for a full refund? Who pays the shipping costs? When will you receive your order? Legitimate companies will spell out their refund and delivery policies. Most of the time, sellers are required to ship items -- as promised -- within 30 days after the order date.
  • Print and save records of your online transactions. This includes the product description and price, the online receipt and copies of any email correspondence. Review your credit card statements as you receive them and be on the lookout for unauthorized charges. Report any errors to your credit card company within 60 days of receiving your statement.

Watch the auctions

"Many of these tips also apply to purchases made through online auction sites and online classifieds," said Jenkins. "We encourage consumers to avoid doing business with unidentifiable sellers, especially those who use a 'pop up' or other ways to lure you away from the site with promises of a better deal."

Consumers using online classifieds, such as Craigslist, are advised to deal with local sellers who you can meet in person. When making a purchase, never use wire transfer services to send money -- anyone who asks you to do so is likely a scammer. And, never give out personally identifiable information including your Social Security number and bank account number.

According to Forrester Research, a national marketing company, online shopping could top $52 billion this holiday season. That would be a 16 percent increase over last year's numbers.

"With more consumers doing their holiday shopping on the Internet, there are more opportunities for scammers and identity thieves," concluded Jenkins. "If you're not careful, you could get a whole lot more than you bargained for -- and, in this case, that is not a good thing."