This holiday season will no doubt bring a rise in online shopping. While there is no match for the convenience of online shopping, unfortunately, things can go wrong while shopping in cyberspace. Sometimes it is simply a case of a computer glitch or poor customer service. Other times, shoppers are cheated by clever “cybercrooks”. Here are a few ways that shoppers can protect themselves while shopping online this holiday season.
Check the Authenticity of the Website Address or URL
Above the web site at the top of your screen is a rectangular window that contains the web site address (also called the URL or Uniform Resource Locator). By checking that address, it can give you clues as to whether you are dealing with the correct company or a safe website.
Cyber-thieves have created web sites that look convincingly like the web sites of well-known companies. These sites capture the credit card numbers of unwary shoppers. The thieves then use the stolen credit card numbers to make fraudulent purchases in the shopper’s name. If these shoppers had checked the URL at the top of the screen, they could have noticed that it was not the same address as the real company.
Secure websites use security technology to transfer information from your computer to the online merchant’s computer. This technology scrambles (encrypts) the information you send, such as your credit card number, in order to prevent computer hackers from obtaining it “en route.” This reduces the number of people who can access the transaction information. The following items shown on your web browser will indicate a connection to a secure web site.
* https:// The “s” that is displayed after “http” indicates that web site is secure. Often, you do not see the “s” until you actually move to the order page on the web site.
* A closed yellow padlock displayed at the bottom of your screen. If that lock is open, you should assume it is not a secure site.
Research the Vendor or Website
Do business with companies you already know. If the company is unfamiliar, investigate their authenticity and credibility. Conduct an internet search (i.e. Google, Yahoo) for the company name. The results should provide both positive and negative comments about the company. If there are no results, be extremely wary. Reliable companies should advertise their business address and at least one phone number, either customer service or an order line. Call the phone number and ask questions to determine if the business is legitimate. Ask how the merchant handles returned merchandise and complaints. Find out if it offers full refunds or only store credits. You can also research a company in Internet yellow pages, through the Better Business Bureau (see listing below), or a government consumer protection agency including the district attorney’s office or the state Attorney General. Perhaps friends or family members who live in the city listed can verify the validity of the company. Remember, anyone can create a web site.
Credit vs. Debit
The safest way to shop on the Internet is with a credit card. In the event something goes wrong, you are protected under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act. You have the right to dispute charges on your credit card, and you can withhold payments during a creditor investigation. When it has been determined that your credit was used without authorization, you are only responsible for the first $50 in charges. E-commerce shopping by check leaves you vulnerable to bank fraud. Sending a cashier’s check or money order doesn’t give you any protection if you have problems with the purchase. Make sure your credit card is a credit card only and not a debit card, or a check card. As with checks, a debit card exposes your bank account to thieves. Your checking account could be wiped out in minutes. Further, debit cards are not protected to the extent that credit cards are by federal law. Use Shopper’s Intuition Heed the old adage, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.” Are there extraordinary claims that you question? Do the company’s prices seem unusually low? Does the company’s phone go unanswered? . If any of these questions trigger a warning, you will be wise to find another online merchant or buy the product in a store. Keeping these tips in mind will help protect against identity theft this holiday season and ensure holiday shoppers can concern themselves with wrapping paper rather than identity theft.
And don’t forget, if you are on public wifi, always use a personal VPN, such as PRIVATE WiFi.