E-Shopping Basics

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Spending Your E-Dollars Safely

For the most part virtual credit-card transactions are as safe as -- or safer than -- the real world (where thieves can find account numbers on receipts in the trash). But some crimes do occur on the Web. And with all the personal information Web sites collect, such as mailing and e-mail addresses, many online shoppers are concerned about privacy as well.

To save yourself hassles, the best thing you can do is try to find out with whom you're doing business. Even if you already know a company, their new e-stores may have different policies for issues like returns. And sometimes, of the items you want can be found only at a site you've never heard of. Luckily, credit card companies have a policy of not holding fraud victims responsible for anything over $50 charged without the cardholder's consent. And some sites even offer to pay that initial $50 if anything happens with your order.

If other individuals have access to your computer, don't allow any shopping site to save your registration information ("Remember me" or "Remember my password" options). And look for a few key signs as you shop online:

Symbols of Trust

Always look for a seal from an independent monitor -- usually at the bottom of the Web site's home page -- which indicates that the merchant's practices are being monitored by a third party with no ties to that company. The top watchdogs include the Better Business Bureau Online (BBBOnLine), TRUSTe, and VeriSign.

Click the seals to make sure they're real and not just copied from some other site, advises BBBOnLine director Steve Salter.

Clicking the BBBOnLine Reliability Seal should take you to the company's reliability report. Thousands of sites have been awarded this seal, which means the site has been in business for at least one year, has been evaluated for truth in advertising and transaction trustworthiness, a Better Business Bureau representative visited the company's physical office, and the proprietors have agreed to participate in dispute-resolution procedures. Their Privacy Seal means the site will safeguard the information you give them.

The TRUSTe symbol indicates that the site discloses which personal information is being gathered and how it will be used and shared with others. The site will also offer you choices about how your personal information is used and how you can correct inaccuracies.

VeriSign has issued millions of digital certificates to sites verified to have secure servers. Click on the VeriSign seal for information about the site, and make sure it's consistent with information provided by the site.

Secure Ordering

When you get to the point of entering your credit card information, check the lower-left corner of your screen for a locked padlock or key icon. This means that you are on a secure server and the page with your personal information was encrypted as it was loading.

Normally when you visit a Web site, text and images are sent directly between the Web site's computer and your computer. Anyone with enough knowledge of how the Web works can access the information that is sent back and forth. Encryption software jumbles the data -- your credit card number, for example -- into a special code, so that only authorized personnel with the proper decoding software can access it.

The technology of encryption software was until recently considered a state secret by the United States government, but its export to 23 countries is now approved. (Many overseas companies have developed their own brand of secure server software as well.)

If you are placing an order and you see an open padlock icon in the lower left corner, or no padlock or key at all, the page is not encrypted; don't place an order. Your browser may also send you a warning alerting you to a lack of security; if so, it's best to abandon your order. Netscape and Internet Explorer support secure servers; other browsers may not.

A respectable online merchant will not ask for your payment information via e-mail. E-mail is not encrypted and could be read by other parties.

Credit and debit cards are the most viable option for online transactions. Some credit cards, like American Express Blue, now offer special e-commerce features, such as total online fraud protection and an extension of merchants' no-return policies to 90 days.

Company Contact Info

Many sites still don't make it easy for you to reach them if there's a problem, so make sure they post a phone number as well as e-mail and U.S. Postal Service addresses. Established businesses have standard policies on returns, privacy, and customer satisfaction. These should be clearly displayed at the site.

Privacy Policy

Most online shopping sites will ask you to register on their site. When you register, you will be asked to provide some personal information. If you're concerned about online privacy (or just don't want unwanted junk e-mail), here are some tips to follow:

1. Read the merchant's privacy policy (usually found on the home page or under "Help"). If a site doesn't have one, don't shop there.

2. Fill out only the minimum information required in online ordering forms. Many online forms indicate optional fields either in bold-faced words or highlighted by asterisks.

3. Use different usernames and/or passwords with each site that asks you to register. (Decide on one place where you'll write them all down to keep track.) Some sites will let you make individual purchases without registering. Take that option if you don't plan to shop there regularly.

4. Look for boxes on the registration form that let you accept or reject general marketing e-mails from the merchant. These usually say something like, "Please send me information about great deals at (name of merchant)." If you don't want the e-mail, don't check the box.

5. Look for boxes on the registration form that let you specify that the information you provide is for the merchant's use alone. These boxes usually say something like, "Please send me special offers from your marketing partners." If you don't want the mail, don't check the box.

6. When you're looking at those check boxes, read the accompanying text carefully. Sometimes the sites check these boxes for you automatically, and you need to "deselect" or "uncheck" the box to avoid the additional marketing e-mails.

A site may know more about you than you think, even when you're just browsing.

Continued on page 3:  Returns Made Easy


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