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Even Savvy Shoppers Can Get Scammed -- Tips for the Holiday Shopping Season

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Last week marked the official beginning to the holiday shopping season. More people will be buying their stocking-stuffers online than ever before this year. comScore predicts online spending this holiday season will grow by at least 9%, two times last year's pace, and the National Retail Federation (NRF) is expecting 2010 holiday retail sales to rise by 2.3% this year to $447.1 billion, compared with a rise of only 0.4% last year. In fact, the NRF reported that 33.6% of Thanksgiving weekend sales (Thursday-Sunday) were online, the highest percentage ever.

Yet as the number of Internet shoppers rises, so do the threats to both personal security and privacy. We are voluntarily putting more of our personal information out there than ever before through social channels like Facebook and Twitter and the associated purchasing mechanisms which have latched on to these communities -- but are we being smart about our online activity? Not really.

The average consumer remains negligent to the fact that their information is not automatically protected when online. Security breaches come in all shapes and forms, from sidejacking -- where someone on your Wi-Fi network literally hijacks into your internet session to steal your info -- to lesser known tactics of fake e-coupons that allow hackers to gain access to your credit card information. The recent release of Firesheep shed light on the fact that, despite some protection, we all still need to take measures to protect our personal information online.

What many people don't realize is that while your credit card numbers might be made public when shopping online, so can your behavior -- which can be even more frightening. What's even more alarming is that these privacy violations don't just come from rogue hackers. Rather, big companies are in the practice of violating individuals' online privacy everyday by monitoring and storing what you buy.

Recently in the news there has been a resurrection of noise around Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), intrusive technologies for profiling and targeting Internet users with ads which goes beyond monitoring just Web browsing and literally tracks an individual's behavior online. Creepy isn't it? Even some of our favorite websites are getting into the game, such as Facebook passing your data to third party sites and Google's Wi-Fi data collection. The point is, the general need to raise awareness around online privacy is all around us.

Rest assured that not all hope is lost as there are a number of simple ways that you as a consumer can take your privacy and security into your own hands. Here are some simple tips and tricks that make it possible for anyone -- tech savvy or not -- to stay safe and private when hunting for the big deals and surfing the Web this holiday season:

1. Antivirus: Invest in antivirus software like McAfee, Symantec or Webroot, which helps to blocks viruses, spyware, spam and lesser known threats to consumers like trojans, worms and rootkits, encrypting critical passwords and making your PC invisible to hackers.

2. Download and be done: While antivirus technology is critical, it remains the case that only 40% of people are actually protected by their antivirus. To help ensure that you are completely secure and protected online, combine this with a tool like as Hotspot Shield, a completely free download (Virtual Private Network -- VPN) which keeps you secured and blocked from outside eyes.

3. Stamp of Approval: Look for accredited seals of approval from third party entities. And wherever you enter your credit card or other personal information, make sure that there is an "s" after http in the Web address. This means that it is encrypted.

4. Lock and key: Make sure there is a tiny closed padlock in the address bar, or on the lower right corner of the window. This lets you know that the site is secure.

5. Too Legit? This one can be a bit tougher, but take a minute to look for signs that the business is legitimate. Goes without saying that the Amazons and Targets of the world are legit, but for smaller shops, double check that it's a credible business by calling the main number or doing a quick online search for other user reviews.

Online shopping provides an easy option for savvy shoppers, but make sure you're smart about how you buy. Follow these tips and protect your identity, information and right to online privacy this holiday season.