Who wants to brave a crowded mall when you can do your shopping online? It’s fast, it’s easy and you don’t even have to get dressed. 

But you do have to be smart when you buy online or you could end up with bigger problems than a sweater that doesn’t fit. Follow these 12 tips to keep you — and your personal information — safe.

Before you shop

  • Know your seller. Stick to well-known online vendors and chain stores you recognize. If the site sends you to a third-party “marketplace” seller, read the shipping and return terms carefully.
  • Update your computer software. Increasingly, browser software protects you from unknowingly going to a fake version of a legitimate site. These fake sites are set up by scammers to collect your financial data. But your browser software protects you best only if you install the latest version. Keep your firewall and antivirus software current, too.
  • Stay safe in public. It’s easy for hackers to get to you when you’re using public Wi-Fi. They can sniff out your passwords (banking, credit card, email) or even install malicious software on your machine so they can grab the info later. You won’t notice anything odd until it’s too late. If you shop frequently from public places, install a VPN service — that’s a virtual private network — on your laptop, tablet, and/or mobile phone so you’re safe on the go.
  • Use credit, not debit. Most credit cards have security teams dedicated to watching your account and no-fault clauses that protect you from charges you didn’t make. Bank debit cards often don’t, which means money stolen from your account is usually gone for good.

While you’re shopping

  • Use secure sites. When you get to the point of putting in your credit card information, your browser will tell if you’ve entered a secure part of the website. Look for a picture of a lock in the address bar at the top of the page; the website should start with “HTTPS” instead of “HTTP.” Avoid sites that don’t offer secure connections for making transactions.
  • Don’t shop on borrowed equipment. Don’t log on to a hotel or airport computer to buy anything, even if you need it now. Public computers often have out-of-date security software, and it's far too easy to leave behind your passwords and financial data in a browser's memory file, called the cache. You can research car rental prices without logging on, and then just call an agent to set up the car.
  • Ignore “amazing” offers. Apple iPads for $1? Glorious Caribbean vacations for a song? Yes, they are too good to be true. They’re designed to capture your email address in order to resell it to phishing scammers. These creeps send nefarious emails that look like they’re coming from genuine shopping or banking sites — but they aren’t. Steer clear.

After you buy

  • Never follow links in suspicious emails. If you get an “urgent” email from a bank or website warning you about fraud, be very wary. No legit operation will ever ask you via email to click on a link or call a phone number.
  • Keep receipts. Print receipts or save them to a backup drive or service. Don’t rely on the site to remember your purchase history. It will, but it may not give you access to your data after a certain period of time.
  • Log out and close browsers. Done shopping? Don’t leave your browser open and your shopping carts exposed. A hacker who may have gained access to your computer may wait for it to go dormant so you won’t notice when it’s attacked. Shutting down and turning off your machine clears temporary browser data, making an attacker’s job harder.
  • Check your statements. It’s common sense to review your credit card statements for unexpected charges, and it’s especially important if you shop online. Contact your credit card’s fraud department about anything suspicious right away.

Follow these tips for safer online shopping and, unless you’re a big fan of the food court, you’ll never, ever miss the mall.

Greg writes about personal finance, business and technology. His work has appeared in Businessweek, Newsweek, Forbes, Bankrate and a variety of trade ​publications.