Don’t let the internet spoil a surprise.

January 9, 2020

Online shopping offers the perks of a larger selection of potential gifts, a way to quickly compare prices, and the time savings of making purchases from anywhere.

Choosing gifts online, however, can spoil a well-thought-out surprise and haunt you with ads that could feel like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Personalized online ads, also known as “targeted,” “retargeted,” or “interest-based” ads; which appear on social media and search engine platforms such as Facebook or Google, give clues to your children, spouse or other loved ones who share your device about what you’ve searched for during online shopping sessions. These ads can also easily spoil a surprise.

This phenomenon has intensified over the last several years, but experts also have pinpointed ways to help you hide your shopping history from prying eyes.

Social media websites, search engines, e-retailers, and advertisers typically track your browsing activity without breaking any law largely by terms and conditions to which you have consented but are unlikely to have entirely read or understood.

Here’s how you can foil the holiday sleuths in your family, elude tracking by websites and keep your holiday gifts under wraps until it’s time to unwrap:

Leave the cookies to Santa

Most browsers allow you to lock out cookies, hampering websites’ ability to identify you. Unfortunately, you will have to sign in to every website each time you visit, and your settings won’t be saved.

Wear a disguise

Shop online in private browsing mode. When you use Google Chrome Incognito, you still can’t escape targeted ads, but the mode prevents your gift recipient from using the back button or seeing your search when they start to type in the address bar. Microsoft Edge’s version is called InPrivate, and unlike Incognito Mode, Microsoft promises to delete your InPrivate session.

If you are using a website such as Amazon, you can clear gift items from your viewing history to keep them from showing up in the “recently viewed” and “recommended items” lists. From the Amazon homepage, click “browsing history,” then “view and edit,” and remove items. Meanwhile, archive existing online orders on the specific website where you bought them. And make sure to log out of your account at the end of your shopping session.

Sometimes, you might still see ads inspired by your recent shopping activity appear on Facebook. But there is a way to remove targeted ads from Facebook: Click on “settings,” located under the down arrow on the far right, top corner of the screen. Click “ads” on the bottom of the left-hand column and under each category – “ads based on your activity on Facebook Company Products that you see elsewhere” and “ads based on data from partners” –  select “Not allowed.”

This is effective for Facebook, but it won’t bar other sites from bombarding you with ad banners based on your browsing history.

Block ‘em

Most retailers allow customers to opt-out of tracking and targeted ads, but the processes for opting out often have major gaps that ultimately leave you unprotected, said cybersecurity expert and blogger Bruce Schneier in an interview with Money.com. A more effective precaution is to install free, open-source, ad-blocking browser extensions such as Adblock Plus or Privacy Badger, he said.

Play a holiday game

Schneier noted that your browsing history inspires targeted ads. As a result, it is fairly easy to throw off the website ad algorithms by searching randomly for items in which you’re not interested and have no intention of buying. If you search for a puffer coat, when you plan to buy your spouse an Amazon TV stick, for instance, you can probably generate a collection of targeted ads that will leave your gift recipient out on the secret.

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