Q: I am still not totally convinced that I want to shop online because of the horror stories that I have heard. Is it any safer now then it was in the past? — Jennifer
A: Like any other type of merchant that you choose to do business with, there are things to consider before taking the plunge.
I think many people confuse the act of typing a credit card number into a Web site as being the dangerous part of online shopping. It’s actually one of the safest ways, considering that no human being is involved in the transaction. As long as the site starts with "https://" and has a yellow lock in a bottom corner of the browser screen, the information is being scrambled between your computer and their Web site.
When you call a catalog company to give some stranger your credit card number or hand it to a waiter in a dimly lit restaurant, you have no idea what’s going to happen with your info any more than you do when you shop online.
The risk online is generally not when you make the purchase, but what happens afterwards. Whether you shop via the phone or Internet or hand a cashier your credit card in a department store, your information is entered into a computer database of some sort.
If anyone accesses that database (generally an inside job, not from the Internet) they have your info no matter how you made the purchase.
Who you choose to do business with has a lot to do with safety, so stick to names that you know to reduce the risk. Large companies spend millions of dollars developing and securing their systems. Smaller operations typically have smaller budgets, so the security around their systems may be lax or inadequate.
If you are not familiar with an online vendor, check them out at sites like Bizrate.com or BBB.com (the Better Business Bureau) first. Another option is to use "shop bots" such as MySimon.com, which will list all of the merchants, pricing and ratings for most anything that you want to buy.
If you cannot find a physical address and a toll-free phone number listed at a site, you may want to move on since this is a clear indication that the vendor is trying to hide from customers or can’t justify the cost of a toll-free phone number.
Another mistake that "newbie" shoppers make is using a debit card to make online purchases. Debit cards typically don’t offer the same protection from thieves that a credit card does, since all of the money that is charged against a debit card comes straight out of your checking account. Credit card purchases are generally protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act, so if your card is used without authorization you are generally only liable for the first $50, and often less.
Another safety tip before ever getting started is to do a thorough virus scan of your entire system. Many of today’s worms and viruses incorporate "key loggers," which will capture every keystroke you make and send the log file to a remote e-mail address which would compromise all of your transactions.
If you are infected with a worm or virus and you’re not sure what it does, it’s always a good idea to change your passwords on all of your online accounts — such as banks, brokerage or merchant accounts — immediately.
Always print a hardcopy of every transaction, e-mail confirmation on anything that you buy so that you have faxable records in case of a dispute.
Before deciding to purchase from a merchant, be sure to review their shipping, refund, rebate, damaged goods and privacy policies.
And finally, don’t wait till the last minute to order goods online. Returns take more time with online vendors, so give yourself plenty of time in case things don’t work out. If you are shopping for Christmas, it is best to get all of your orders placed before Dec. 19 if you want it under the tree in time!
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the "Computer Corner" radio show at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KTAR (620 AM) and the "Tech No Phobia" television show at 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays on Cox 9. Readers may send questions to email@example.com.