If you've browsed your local stores recently, you've probably seen all the Christmas decorations, expanding toy selection and scented pine cones. Christmas is coming, which means most of us will be gearing up to shop. The days of suffering through retail congestion are becoming a thing of the past, however: Forrester Research predicts U.S. online sales will increase 16% this holiday season. So, how do you join this online shopping movement and avoid the December crowds without compromising your security? Here are seven tips for shopping online safely this holiday season. (To learn more, check out the Top Holiday Spending Mistakes.)

IN PICTURES: 8 Easy Ways To Slash Your Holiday Budget

  1. Start With Antivirus Software
    If you don't have an antivirus program installed on your computer, that should be the place to start before you shop and give out valuable personal information like your credit card number. Internet safety in general begins at home, so make sure you protect yourself as you venture to websites and vendors. Several antivirus software packages are available, so check reviews. Your internet provider may have a discounted price as part of your service.

  2. Look For Security On The Vendor Website
    Did you find that deal you were looking for? Check to make sure that the vendor uses a secure site to document the sale. Here's one way you can tell: there should be a letter "s" behind the "http" in the web address, and a closed padlock icon to the right of the browser address. When you click to complete the order and enter your credit card information, those should be there - if not, browse away to a different merchant. (Shopping Online: Convenience, Bargains And A Few Scams.)

  3. Use A Filter
    One way to guarantee your safety online is to keep your browser updated to the latest version. This way, you'll have the latest technology when it comes to internet security. An updated browser will also keep phishing (those bad guys that try to get your data) filtered out of your computer, making sure you're safe on the web.

IN PICTURES: 5 "New" Rules For Safe Investing

  1. Check The Vendor's Privacy Policy
    What happens to your information once you enter it? How does the merchant safeguard your credit card and personal information? The vendor's safety and privacy policy should detail this; look for it and read it before completing a sale. Some vendors offer to create an account for you and save your credit card information for easy ordering. This is convenient, but it also makes shopping very easy - something you may want to avoid for security reasons, and to prevent the impulse buy.

  2. Check Reviews
    The great thing about the internet is the information available: you can check reviews by other customers and find out if this merchant is on the up-and-up. Does it deliver on time? Are products as advertised? Look for reviews that don't sound overly angry and aren't an isolated customer service-type misunderstanding. A dozen reviews should give you a good idea what to expect. Also look for seals of approval by agencies like The Better Business Bureau to confirm a vendor's reputation. If information is hard to find, consider taking your business elsewhere for safety's sake.

  3. Read Return Policies
    You've investigated the vendor and found your item of choice at a great price. Time to buy, right? Make sure you check return policies; since you're buying the item sight unseen, and it has to be transported, there's always that chance things don't work out. Make sure you know how this vendor takes returns, if at all.

  4. Keep Receipts
    Once you buy your item, you'll want to print out your receipt (the vendor will give you this option after the transaction goes through). This will give your sales confirmation - a good way to protect yourself in case the vendor tries to charge more, or something goes wrong with delivery. You'll receive this via email too, but print the receipt anyway, just to cover contingencies.

The Bottom Line
Are you ready to shop online? Some estimates have online sales in the U.S. reaching $52 billion. With these steps, you'll make sure that your information is secure when shopping online. Then your holiday season can be merry, bright and cyber safe. (For more, see Paying Online: A How-To Guide.)

Find out what happened in financial news this week. Read Water Cooler Finance: G20 Leader Spats And China Fakes It.

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