Shopping Online? Here’s how to do it safely
By Robert McMillen
Every year at this time I get the question of how to shop online without getting ripped off, having your identity stolen, or exposing your credit card to the world.
Question- “I want to shop online this year for my wife’s Christmas present, but I’m afraid of being taken advantage of. How do I do this without getting burned?”
Thomas G. Portland, OR.
There are three categories here we should examine: How to determine if a shopping website is safe, how to check ahead of time if an online company is reliable, and how to keep your credit card from being stolen. There’s a fourth category which is “how to shop for your wife online when you’re at work without being embarrassed that you’re looking at women’s shoes or handbags”, but that’s another story (privacy screens help).
There are some great free tools to find out if a shopping website is safe. Both MacAfee and AVG make free tools you can download. Just go to Macafee.com or Grisoft.com to get them. These tools have gone through millions of websites and confirmed them as safe from viruses, malware, and spyware. When you go to Google for example, and type in a website you want to go to, these toolbars will let you know very clearly if the website is safe before you click on it. This works for all kinds of websites, so you can use them even when looking for other sites as well. It will not tell you if the shoes go with the handbag, however. Sorry Thomas.
So how will Thomas know if the website he’s buying from will actually deliver? There are a few great ways to find out, and I use them all the time. If you’re looking at buying something from a website directly, then search for the product by typing it into your favorite search engine. When you find the product at the best price, go to search.bbb.org. The Better Business Bureau has a URL option which allows you to put the website’s address into the search bar and find out what grade they get from the BBB. They are graded by how many complaints are filed as well as if they responded to the complaints in a timely manner and satisfied the customer. You may be surprised at how many failing grades there are out there.
If you’re buying from a website like Ebay or Amazon, then you’re not always buying from the website directly. They both have businesses that sell through their site. You can browse through their approval rating to see if they have the type of reputation you feel comfortable with. I have found these to be very helpful, and the few times I have had problems with a product they were taken care of very quickly by the reputable firms. The worst thing that could happen would be for you to say something bad about them in the customer review section, so they try very hard to keep you satisfied.
So if Thomas bought his wife a new vacuum cleaner for Christmas, and it didn’t suck up the dirt as advertised, they should give him a new vacuum right away. Thomas may need that vacuum to pick up all of his car parts after his wife gets through with it. After all, she did ask for jewelry and if you somehow confuse the two, she would make sure you didn’t get confused again next year.
So now Thomas has made sure the website is safe from viruses, the Better Business Bureau has certified it’s a place that has a good rating, and now we have to think about the credit card purchase.
Just because the first two conditions have been met doesn’t mean Thomas is home free. He now needs to input his credit card information. In years past we strongly suggested that you use Firefox over Internet Explorer for safer online transactions. Microsoft has improved their browser’s safety, and the two are both fairly safe for online transactions provided you have the most up to date patches.
After you click on your shopping cart and you are ready to check out, you need to put in all kinds of personal information in order to get your product shipped. Make sure your check out page has a little lock that shows up at the bottom right side of your screen, and you don’t get any warnings about the certificate from the website being expired or not able to authenticate. A certificate is needed to encrypt your data. If it is intercepted by a hacker, the data will show up as only unreadable characters because they don’t have the secure transaction certificate to decode it.
As long as those things are in order you can go ahead and put in the information. I strongly suggest you use a credit card instead of a debit card. This way you don’t need to worry about all your money disappearing from your account in the rare case your identity does get stolen. If you don’t have a credit card, then try to open an account with a smaller balance you can afford to lose temporarily in case it does happen.
Banks are pretty good about returning funds after fraud happens, but if you were without your money for even a day or two, you would be miserable. I can hear Thomas’s wife now. “Why didn’t you follow that tech guru’s advice like I told you too? You vacuum cleaner buying, jewelry ignoring…. What do I look like, a maid?”
For more great tips, check back here each week and listen to me on the All Tech Radio show at 9:00 Sunday mornings on AM 1360 KUIK, or listen online at http://alltechradio.com.
If you would like your technical question answered here, just email email@example.com. Even if it doesn’t get answered in the column I will always answer by email.