Seems like not a week goes by without some sort of story in the paper about a computer security breech, identity theft, or scams or other rip-offs. It’s enough to make one avoid shopping online, except that it’s so darn convenient! What’s your opinion? Should I avoid shopping online entirely, or are there tips you can offer on how to stay safe while still going to the virtual mall?
First off, I’ll share a secret with you that might get me in trouble with my editor here at the Daily Camera: news media, online and off, is in the business of selling fear.
Are you more likely to tune in to the news if they said “Everything’s looking good. Join us and we’ll talk about it” or “Cellphones and brain cancer, not knowing can kill you! In-depth report at 10!”? A look at the most popular online news sites and blogs reveal that what Don Henley aptly calls the “dirty laundry” of news reporting is just as pervasive in non-mainstream sources too.
I think it’s probably just part of being human, slowing down at an accident site and secretly thinking “there but for the grace of God…” but slowing down nonetheless. We’re curious about bad news and it’s a potent motivator for behavior. Heck, the entire mind-numbing “war on terror” of the last few years has been all fear motivated and it’s significantly changed our society. But that’s another column!
My point is that while there are problematic incidents that happen in the online world, the vast, vast majority of online transactions are a positive, successful experience. I shop online all the time and in many years and hundreds of transactions, I’ve never had a problem with goods not being shipped, not being what was described, or my identity or credit information stolen.
There are some tips I can offer to help you have the same positive experience.
1. Look for sites that use secure payment systems.
This shows up as the URL for the shopping cart and checkout pages being “https:” rather than “http:” and most browsers also have a little lock or padlock icon that indicates the site is secure too. Now their using encryption doesn’t mean you’re automatically safe, but it does mean that they’re paying attention to your security and that’s a very good sign. For the same reason, I don’t shop at sites that are poorly designed or downright ugly. I just don’t trust ’em.
2. Always pay with a credit card.
Often you can use other payment methods, like echecks or a money order, but the advantage of a credit card is that Visa, MasterCard, American Express, etc are consumer, not merchant oriented. If there’s a problem, it’s quite easy to reverse a charge or let their fraud department deal with it. Paypal offers this level of security with some, though not all, transactions.
3. Get an “online only” credit card.
This is something I figured out a few years ago and it’s really helped protect my credit. By having only one credit card that I use for all online transactions it not only protects my other card accounts, but also makes it easier to review the statement each month and spot any anomolies or problems.
4. Shop at larger, better known online stores if you have that option.
A lot of my friends run smaller online retail stores and I am delighted with their success, but my personal approach is to prefer a well-established site like Amazon.com, Buy.com, llbean.com, or rei.com to purchase things. Big companies have more to lose if they have unhappy customers and I think they’re just safer and more trustworthy anyway. If you do go to smaller online retailers, look for guarantees, better business bureau membership, and even Google ’em to see if there are bad reports floating around.
Using these basic rules, I think you should be safe with your online shopping adventures.