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Shopping Online - Keep it Safe

Everyone is talking about online shopping. It's easy and a lot less hassle than a trip to the mall. It puts unbelievable choice right at your fingertips. Despite the advantages, there are certain things you do and don't do when it comes to your money and your safety. Street smarts are the rule online and off when it comes to safe shopping. Online that goes double.

Online shoppers, just like those in the physical world, know to be aware of the neighborhood where they are shopping. They know the reputations of the places where they do business. They watch their wallets, and they know to be aware of who might be scrutinizing them just a little too closely.

Do a little research. Anyone can build a website. If you encounter an unfamiliar company where you want to shop, find out who they are. Look for an address. Be wary of any company that does not list one. An address is no guarantee, but you can use it to check references with the Better Business Bureau, BBB. Their online site at http://bbb.org/ has nationwide listings.

Sometimes you may want more information than the BBB provides. In this case, after the BBB check, use your favorite search engine and try an "about search." The difference in an "about search," and just looking for the site, is that you already know where the site is; now you want to find out what people are saying about it. Generally, just putting "about" in front of the company name will get you started.

For a very small purchase, you might want to dispense with all this investigating. But do use a low limit credit card. That way if anything does go awry, it isn't that far awry. Yes, we all know about the $50 liability limit, but the low limit card can be a hassle saver online.

You may choose not to use a debit card online at all. Many debit cards do not offer the same protections against fraud as credit card companies. You could be putting your whole bank account at risk.

While you are at it, be sure to check out the return policy and guarantee. Online and off, most good companies do accept returns, either by providing a cash refund or product exchange. Note, however, shipping costs are typically not refunded for online purchases.

Online Security:

After you've found exactly what you have been looking for, checked out the seller, and their return policy; the next thing you need to do is make sure the site is secure. Secure means your personal information is encrypted in transit to the seller's server. This prevents unauthorized (hacker) access and possible misuse of your credit information.

Examine the URL in the address bar. If the site is encrypted you will see an "s" directly after the http - like https://. The whole site will not be encrypted, but the order page for the transaction should be.

Other things to look for - depending on your browser, you may see either an open or a closed padlock, or a whole or broken key. If the key is broken or the lock open, you should assume that the site is not encrypted.

Sometimes security issues get tricky. Suppose you personally know the owner, it is a solid local business, but there is no encryption system in place and they expect you to transmit your credit information online. With small businesses, this is most often a case of not knowing better, that does not, however, mean that you do not. In cases like this, look for a phone number and call in your order. If there is no phone number and no mailing address, you should seriously consider whether you want to risk an unsecured transaction.

Common sense is the rule online and off. Guard your personal information, including Social Security Number, bank account information and passwords. No reputable merchant has a need for your Social Security Number and it is not standard policy to ask for it when you buy your groceries for instance. Requiring this for a routine purchase should send up a red flag. You should immediately take your business elsewhere. Some will do whatever they can think of, in all kinds of official looking ways, to get you to provide private personal information. If you call, they may personally assure you that they do indeed need your bank account and password to sell you that CD. No way, just because it looks good, and they sound sincere, doesn't mean that it is or they are, and you may not know there was ever a problem until you see your credit report.

The last big rule is to keep copies of everything. Print out the pages with the description and prices of items you order. Print out your credit card receipt. Most companies will email you a copy as well. Keep that too, and make sure it matches your online information.

And remember, online and off, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Don't let the heat of the offer lull you into abandoning your good common sense. Of course, you could miss the deal of a lifetime, and that is exactly what the unscrupulous want you to think. Likely as not, online and off - if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Shopping the net is destined to change the way we do business, but it is still a new frontier, with many of the uncertainties that go with it. The only way to really be secure online is to develop your street smarts and sometimes, that may not be enough. It will certainly level the field though, and by keeping your cyber smarts well honed, you should be able to safely shop the net.

Copyright 2005 Regina Pickett Garson

About the author:

Regina Pickett Garson teaches at Virginia College in Huntsville, Alabama. For more about online shopping, you can visit her website at http://lafindz.tripod.com

Written by: Regina Pickett Garson

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