As the weather outside grows frightful, you can be cheered by the fact that there are more Online Shopping sites than ever before.

Shopping on the Internet means no waiting in line at the mall or department stores, a wide selection of stores right at your fingertips, and a variety of delivery options.

But there is one catch.

Before you reach for your credit card to buy from your favorite store's Web site, or bid on items at an online auction, make sure you're keeping your financial information as safe as possible.

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Here are some tips for shopping online while keeping your banking information safe from scammers:

Buy through secure Web sites only. When you buy something online or try to sign in to view your credit or bank accounts, your browser frame should have a small lock symbol near the bottom right-hand corner. This means the site scrambles your purchase information before sending it over the Internet. The Federal Trade Commission (search) reports, however, that some such security symbols can be faked, so be sure to practice other safe buying habits as well. No lock? Place your order over the phone instead.

Put your online purchases on a single credit card. Internet security is fallible, so this way you can limit the damage if your credit card information is stolen. Choose a card that has extra precautions for online purchases, including password protection and zero liability in case of fraud. Some credit card companies may also offer temporary numbers, which allow you to use a "disposable" number for a single online purchase. After that, the number will expire.

Stick to stores you know. The FTC recommends that you thoroughly check out any little-known company before making an online purchase. Call the company to ask for a paper catalog or brochure.

Never -mail financial information. Reputable retailers will never ask that you e-mail your credit card number or other financial information. If you receive an e-mail asking for verification of such information, call the company instead.

Pay for online auctions through a reliable third source. Never give the seller your financial information. You might sign up for an online payment service such as PayPal (www.paypal.com) or CheckFree (www.checkfree.com). If you're buying a valuable or otherwise big-ticket item, choose a reputable escrow service.