Shop for holiday gifts online without spoiling the secret

Office full of holiday presents. Photo by GovWin on Flickr.

When I was a kid, I figured out that Mom & Dad hid the holiday presents in their closet, so every December when I was home alone I’d do some sneaking around and figure out what was going to be under the tree. These days, kids or snooping spouses need to do even less to find out what gifts they’ll be getting because quick check through the shared computer’s browser history or your email and BAM—the secret is out of the bag.

Although we’re increasingly doing our shopping and purchasing online, there are some easy precautions you can take to make sure your holiday surprises stay a surprise. Here’s my top tips:

1. Set up a throwaway email address

You’re probably signed into your email on not just your computer at home, but at the office, on your smartphone and probably even a tablet. How vigilant can you be about making sure the kids or your spouse aren’t snooping on one of these devices when your back is turned?

To truly keep online gift purchases a secret you’re going to want to create a throwaway online email account that you only use to make and track your online purchases this holiday season. And every time you’re done you sign out of the address, and poof, it’s gone without a trace.

I’d recommend using a webmail service like Google’s Gmail or Yahoo! Mail because they make it a snap to set up a new email address.

2. Use your browsers “private browsing” mode

Your web browsing history can tell people a LOT about not just the gifts you’ve purchased, but the categories of gifts you’ve been checking out. Especially if you’ve got a shared computer in your home, anyone can easily check out your browsing history and see that you’ve been looking at Necklaces on Etsy or videogames on Amazon.

So when you’re browsing, you’ll want to use your web browser’s “private browsing” feature. Called “Incognito” on Google Chrome, “Private Browsing” on Safari and Firefox, and “InPrivate” on Internet Explorer, this mode doesn’t save your history, passwords, or even any cookies or images, so there’s no easy way for a snoop to reconstruct your browsing history!

3. Use gift cards or online bank accounts for purchases

A shared bank or credit card statement is all it would take for a spouse to find out what you’re buying, so don’t make it that easy for him or her to figure out what you’re up to this holiday season!

While not every retailer takes them, gift cards that work like credit cards (look for the VISA, AmEx, or Master Card logos) can often be used instead of a credit card to pay for your purchases. That way, provided all the receipts are sent to your throwaway email address, there’s no paper trail whatsoever!

Another option is to load up an online bank account like Paypal or Google Wallet with cash beforehand and then use those services to make your online purchases. Again, nothing to indicate what you’re buying or where you’re shopping!

4. Get packages delivered to a secure location

Getting packages sent to your home is a great way to get tripped up this holiday season. A single delivery when you’re not home could spoil your surprise by a set of prying eyes.

So, instead, ship gifts somewhere: to your office if you have one, or a trusted friend’s house. That way you won’t even have to worry about the gift being at home!