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November 09, 2006 - Tips for Online Shopping Safety
by Bill Grunfelder
    Is shopping online "safe"?   For the most part, the answer is yes, as long as you take some precautions and use common sense.   While there are no guarantees, the following tips will help make your online shopping experience much "safer".
    Updates.   Your computer should have the latest operating system & security updates installed and be free of spyware & viruses.   You should also be sure to use the latest version of your web browser with all updates.
    For Windows-based computers, using Windows XP with the latest updates, including service pack 2, is best.   Some of the improvements that Microsoft made to Internet Explorer in SP2 are not available on older versions of Windows.   Mozilla Firefox is a "newer" alternative web browser that has been well-received.
    Location.   It is safest to shop online with "big name" stores.   A larger company with "Brick & Mortar" locations is much less likely to engage in fraud than a place you have never heard of.   Even though may not have a physical store near you, they are a reputable online retailer.
    The physical location from which you make the online purchases can also be rather important.   It is much safer to use a trusted network than a public or insecure wireless network.
    Privacy.   Do not give out unnecessary personal information.   Check if the site has a privacy policy.   This should tell you how they use and if they may sell your personal information.
    Terms and Conditions.   It's important to read and understand any terms and conditions of sale.   You will want to look for a refund / return policy.   Some sites charge a "re-stocking" fee for any returned merchandise.   If you return a purchase, they might not refund shipping and handling costs, and you may be required to pay for the return shipping.
    Shipping and Handling.   While you may often be able to find a lower price for an item online than in a local store, sometimes Shipping and Handling charges and delivery wait times make buying locally a better option.
    Encryption.   Any time you are asked to enter detailed personal information and financial information, you want to make sure that you are connected to a secure site.   A secure site uses encryption to send your information from your browser to the server that hosts the web site.
    The URL for a secure site should always start with "https://" (instead of "http://").   The most popular web browsers, Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox, also use a "padlock" to signify that you are connected to a secure site.   You should also make sure that the site you are connected to is still the site you thought you were connected to (check the URL), it is possible to be redirected to another site.
    Accounts.   Many online stores will force you to create an account to make a purchase at their site, or will create an account for you automatically when you make a purchase.   It is important to choose a good password for this account, one that is unique from other passwords that you use.
    Many sites will save your credit card information, for your "convenience", for future purchases.   It is much more secure, if your credit card information is not saved -- if you have the option, choose not to have it saved.   This way, even if someone did get into your account with that merchant, they should not be able to make a purchase charged to your credit card.
    Payment.   Credit Cards (not debit) are generally considered the safest method of payment for online purchases.   In general they have better fraud protection policies than alternative online payment methods.   Some credit cards offer additional online purchase protections, contact your credit card company to see if yours does.
    One of the best protections (offered to Citibank cardholders and some others) is "virtual credit card numbers".   Virtual CC numbers allow you to pay for your purchase without providing your "real" credit card number.   You can create a card number that expires after one or more months with a dollar limit that you specify - making the card number "useless" after you have used it.
    You may also want to use a different credit card only for your online purchases.   A different card, with a lower credit limit, may make it easier for you to detect fraudulent transactions.
    Confirmation.   You should print the details of your purchase for your records.   Most online stores will send you a confirmation email after you have placed an order - you should also save this message.   Having this information will help if you have trouble with your order later.
    Conclusion.   Hopefully the guidelines and recommendations in this article will help you enjoy shopping online with less trepidation.

Copyright 2006 Bill Grunfelder.   May not be used or reproduced without permission.
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