Safe and Secure Online Ordering

An E-commerce Security Primer

- 2003.03.18 - Tip Jar

The buying and selling of goods and services online (e-commerce) is the fastest growing segment of our society. According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, almost 1% of all retail sales occur in e-commerce.

Even so, a large percentage of consumers with PCs and Internet connections have never made an online purchase. The top reason cited is fear about the security of the information that must be provided - most notably credit card data - in order to make an online purchase.

This apprehension is not unfounded. According to statistics from the National Consumers League's Internet Fraud Watch, consumers reported losses totaling $4.3 million in Internet fraud during the first ten months of 2001. Although the majority of these losses are the result of a few very large elaborate schemes run by professional con artists, it pays to be careful when making purchases on the Internet.

By employing a few safeguards, you can greatly reduce the chances that you will fall victim to Internet fraud.

Just as you would with any transaction, online or otherwise, find out all you can about the seller. Check with the Better Business Bureau in the seller's location. Sometimes you have to dig around on the seller's website in order to find a physical address. If you are unable to find a physical address, or if the website contains only a phone number or post office box address, beware! Another helpful resource is the Better Business Bureau Online.

When you make an online purchase, always use a credit card. This gives you the right to dispute fraudulent charges under certain conditions. Make sure to use a "real" credit card, not a debit card. A debit card can be used just like a credit card, and often carries the MasterCard or Visa logo. The difference is that when using a debit card the amount of any purchase you make is immediately drafted from your bank account.

These cards are much more limited in the protection they give you. Even if you are ultimately successful in disputing a fraudulent charge, in most cases you lose use of the disputed funds in the interim.

When you make an online purchase, make sure the web page into which you enter your personal information is secure. Most browsers have an icon that looks like a lock, usually in one of the lower corners of the browser window. When you are on a secure web page, the lock will be "locked."

The lock is open most of the time; don't be alarmed, as this is normal. The only time you need a secure connection is when you are submitting sensitive information on a web form.

Another way to tell a secure connection is in the address bar at the top of your browser. When the connection is secure, the address may begin with "https" instead of "http."

Never send credit card information by email.

Many websites allow you to set up an account, which will store your name, shipping address, credit card, information, etc. While this is not automatically a bad idea, you need to take additional precautions if you do this. Never access this information on a public computer or where others could see your password.

All reputable e-commerce web sites have a disclaimer that no one from their company will ever contact you and ask for your password. Consequently, never give out your password or credit card information to any suspicious callers. If the caller seems legitimate, ask them for their name and a number where they can be reached. Then call the company in question and ask them about the legitimacy of the questionable caller.

Online shopping can be fun, rewarding, and convenient. By exercising a little caution, it can also be safe. LEM

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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