Every year, more and more folks are doing all or part of their holiday shopping on the Internet. In about two weeks, starting with “Cyber Monday,” the first Monday after Thanksgiving, Americans will spend billions of dollars online buying everything from the latest in high-tech gear to expensive designer jewelry.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that consumers might avoid crowds by shopping online, but if they’re not careful, they may run into hackers and identity thieves. The FTC and the National Cyber Security Alliance are suggesting some tips for safer and smarter online shopping for this 2008 holiday season.
1. Check out the seller: If you’re thinking about shopping on a site with which you’re not familiar, do some independent research before you buy. If it’s your first time on an unfamiliar site, call the seller’s phone number, so you know you can reach them. If you can’t find a working phone number, take your business elsewhere.
Consider using a software toolbar that rates Web sites and warns you if a site has gotten unfavorable reports from experts and other Internet users. Some reputable companies provide free tools that may alert you if a Web site is a known phishing site or is used to distribute spyware.
2. Read return policies: Despite your best intentions, some gifts may need to be returned or exchanged. Before you buy, read the return policy. Some retailers give customers extra time so gifts can be returned or exchanged after the holidays; others give purchasers as little as a week — if they accept returns at all.
A number of retailers offer shorter return windows for certain products and some charge “restocking” fees. Find out who covers the shipping cost — the customer or the merchant — on a return or exchange, and if your online purchase can be returned to a brick-and-mortar store.
3. Know what you’re getting: Read the seller’s product description closely. Name-brand items at greatly reduced prices could be counterfeit.
4. Don’t fall for a false e-mails or pop-ups: Legitimate companies don’t send unsolicited e-mail messages asking for your password or login name, or your financial information. But scammers do. In fact, crooks often send e-mails that look just like they’re from legitimate companies — but direct you to click on a link, where they ask for your personal information. Delete these e-mails. They’re an attempt to get your information and to facilitate identity theft or other crimes.
In addition, just clicking a link in a fraudulent e-mail could install spyware on your computer.
5. Look for signs a site is safe: When you’re ready to buy something from a seller you trust, look for signs that the site is secure, such as a closed padlock on the browser’s status bar, before you enter your personal and financial information. When you’re asked to provide payment information, the beginning of the Web site’s URL address should change from http to shttp or https, indicating that the purchase is encrypted or secured.
6. Secure your computer: At a minimum, your computer should have anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and a firewall. Security software must be updated regularly to help protect against the latest threats. Set your security software and operating system (like Windows or Apple’s OS) to update automatically.
7. Consider how you’ll pay: Credit cards generally are a safe option because they allow buyers to seek a credit from the issuer if the product isn’t delivered or isn’t what was ordered. Also, if your credit card number is stolen, you generally won’t be liable for more than $50 in charges. Don’t send cash or use a money-wiring service because you’ll have no recourse if something goes wrong.
8. Know the full price, and check out incentives: If you’re looking for the best deal, compare total costs, including shipping and handling.
The holiday season is prime time for online retailers, and many are offering incentives like free shipping. But some “free” shipping deals may come with strings attached, such as requirements to spend a minimum amount or buy certain products. Consider whether one company offers a more generous return policy.
If you use a price comparison site to find a bargain, enter the product’s model number, and be as specific as you can about its features.
9. Keep a paper trail: Print and save records of your online transactions, including the product description and price, the online receipt, and copies of any e-mail you exchange with the seller. Read your credit card statements as soon as you get them to make sure there aren’t any unauthorized charges.
10. Turn your computer off when you’re finished shopping: Many people leave their computers running 24/7, the dream scenario for scammers who want to install malicious software on your machine and then control it remotely to commit cyber crime. To be extra safe, switch off your computer when you are not using it.
For more information on these FTC safe online shopping suggestions, log on to www.ftc.com.
My Final Thoughts: The good news is that most online shopping sites are legit and great places to holiday shop. However, don’t let your guard down just because you are shopping online from the comfort and safety of your own home. Especially with our “tough times” economy, there will be a few conniving cyber-crooks lurking on the Internet just looking to steal your personal information, as well as your hard-earned money.
Note: If you manufacture or distribute any security, safety, emergency preparedness, homeland defense or crime prevention related products, please send information on your product line for possible future reference in this column to
Copyright 2008 by Bruce Mandelblit
Bruce (Mandelblit.com) is a nationally known security and safety journalist, as well as a recently retired, highly decorated reserve law enforcement officer. His e-mail address is CrimePrevention123@yahoo.com. This column is provided for general information purposes only. Please check with your local law enforcement agency and legal professional for information specific to you and your jurisdiction.
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