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How to Shop Online with Confidence

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The good news is that to shop online is safe-if you exercise caution. This means going online with protection and using only the services that pass your trust test.

Going online with protection means having current anti-virus and firewall software installed on your computer. Anything less and you’re putting yourself at risk. Also, if you have a wireless connection at home-or use one elsewhere-check out this article on wireless safety.

There are several criteria for determining the trustworthiness of a site. The most important of which is the initial sniff test. Because let’s face it: some sites just smell phishy (we’ll get to phishing in a bit). Maybe it’s the cheesy blinking graphics. Maybe it’s because they sell other stuff you don’t want to be associated with. Maybe you can’t quite tell exactly why you don’t trust a site. Go with your gut-it’s pretty savvy.

A more objective (but not necessarily better) criterion is the privacy policy. What does it say? What do they plan on doing with your personal information? Privacy policies are usually somewhat opaque, since they’re written by lawyerly types. But if you can’t cut through a privacy policy’s legalese to find a clear answer to your questions, don’t trust it. It may be totally benign, but you don’t know that. Best bet is to keep moving.

In order to stay safe online, here are some other tips for the taking:

Look for Ss. If the site address has an ‘https://’ in the address, that means it works with your web browser to scramble your information, keeping it safe from any third-party onlookers. If there is just ‘http://,’ any information you give is susceptible to interception. Another ‘s’ to look out for is SSL, which stands for secure socket layer. SSL is a method of securing information, and it’s an industry standard. Look for mention of SSL in the site’s privacy policy or elsewhere.

Choose login and password info carefully. Buying something online usually requires setting up an account with a login name and password. Remember, your password should not be a variation on your name or your pet’s. Or your street or hometown. Pick a password that you will remember but not something that someone could easily guess. Try to use upper and lower case letters, as well as symbols and numbers.

Always pay with a credit card. According to the FTC, by paying with a credit card, your transaction will be protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act. Cash and check payments don’t come with similar protections, leaving you with little recourse if you don’t get what you paid for.

Never give personal information over e-mail. Information sent via e-mail is not encrypted like information entered into a form on a secure web site. If you’re ever asked to give personal information via e-mail, the chances are good that you’re the target of a ‘phishing’ operation, in which a fraudster is pretending to be a trusted company.

Keep meticulous records. If, despite your efforts to be careful, you are the victim of fraud or theft, the paper trail will be invaluable in sorting out the aftermath. Be sure to report any mishaps with the Federal Trade Commission and/or your state’s attorney general.

Look for independent approval. There are some organizations that will vouch for the security and/or trustworthiness of a site. While there are very few standards on the web, organizations like the Better Business Bureau, VeriSign and TrustE have emerged as reliable indicators.

Know who you’re buying from. Do some research before your buy if you’re unfamiliar with the company.

Lastly, since the internet landscape changes so quickly, it’s wise to regularly check in with trusted sources to be sure you’re current in your precautionary steps. The FTC operates an excellent site called On Guard Online, which is updated regularly with articles and video tutorials.

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