Think identity thieves won’t try to make holiday less than jolly? Folly!

Attention online shoppers. The Grinch is lurking behind your browser, waiting for a chance to snatch away your holiday.

The good news is, a little common sense goes a long way toward foiling the bad guys. Keeping current on the latest security technology can stop them in their tracks.

"Folks need to think and research things online before they buy," said Paul Cooke, strategic security adviser for Microsoft Corp. "There’s been great growth in the number of people who use the Internet on a daily basis and tremendous growth in the number of online bad guys who will try to steal information or trick users into giving up information.

"These bad guys can perpetrate out-and-out fraud, to identity theft in extreme cases," Cooke said.

He defines identity theft as someone looking to assume your financial identity.

"They (identity thieves) don’t really care to be you, they want your credit, your credit history and your good standing. They’ll apply for credit cards, loans, get RVs, cars and loans in your name. They want to run up the bill as quick as possible and leave you holding the bag."

The most common online fraud involves less extreme levels of compromising ones’ information. "They just want to dump to your cash once or twice. They try to purchase something — usually online — by taking advantage of your credit card numbers and your cash to for their own gain," Cooke said.

Proceed with caution when shopping on unfamiliar sites.

"If you go to the site of your favorite big-box retailer, there’s a great chance that everything is OK," Cooke said. "If you go to a seller you aren’t familiar with, users need to learn to do independent research. Call them. Use Web searches. There are plenty of sites that give you opinions of merchants. Look at their privacy policy to see if they care about you as a user."

Cooke also stressed the importance of keeping current on security software by setting your computer to update automatically.

"You may get something that sounds appealing in e-mail. You click and you consent to let the bad guy do something to your machine. If you have up-to-date software on your machine it will say, ‘Whoa, elf bowling is bad. It has some bad stuff in it.’"

Other tips for safe online shopping include:

• Get a credit card used only for online purchases. This helps track your buying and makes it easier to spot fraud.

• Print receipts of all purchases.

• Turn off your computer when you’re not using it.

• Don’t click on links within e-mail messages. They could lead to fraudulent "phishing" sites.

• Never open an attachment you didn’t request.

• Look for the secure lock and green- or yellow-shaded address bar in your browser before making a transaction.

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