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Protect yourself while shopping online

You can buy anything online, but be careful with your purchases and accounts. While you're browsing Internet retailers for ... say ... a kitchen sink, unseen agents can peek at your secure information and send your privacy right down the drain. 

"There's lots of things people can do to protect themselves," says  Larry Sontag, the Seattle-based author of It's none of your business.

Experts explain their security measures with words like "encryption" and "firewalls," but for most people, that stuff is as easy to understand as ancient Sanskrit. Here's a translation of basic measures to protect your privacy and your wallet.

  • Read privacy statements before you do business with a Web site. A privacy statement is a legally binding agreement that explains the site's practices when it comes to sharing your information. If the site does not have a privacy statement, don't do business with them.

  • Only shop with secure servers. Unfortunately, no site is hack-proof. But if you're going to shop online, a secure server is your best line of defense against a hack attack. A padlock or key at the bottom of your screen notes a secure server. Also, check the URL. If the address has changed from http to https, you're on a secure server.

  • Look for a seal of approval. Much like The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, Internet sites now use outside agents such as TRUSTe, VeriSign or bizrate.com, to monitor their sites for privacy violations.

  • Use a standard credit card when making online purchases. If there is a theft, the culprit won't be able to drain your checking account to its bare bones. Also, thanks to a federal law, you're only liable for $50 worth of purchases made with a stolen credit card number.

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  • Never send cash or a check as payment. You will not have a good paper trail if something goes wrong.

  • Use your discretion. If you're not sure about sharing information on a site or you're not sure about their practices, don't make the purchase. It's that simple.

Extreme measures

These are standard security procedures, but Sontag worries these steps are not enough. He suggests that while browsing online, you pick up the phone and call customer service to place your order. The company that distributes his book doesn't even take orders online.

Sontag goes even further when he advises you forgo using a credit card for a debit card. Though you're only liable for $50 worth of stolen purchases with either one, if hackers get hold of your standard credit card number, they can request to have the credit limit extended to fit their needs. Debit cards, however, bottom out quickly. The culprits can only get as far as the amount of money in your checking account. Sontag also suggests you keep a low balance in the checking account and make a deposit just before you make a purchase.

eOodles and eBoodles of protection

eBoodle is a service that makes browsing the Net more secure. This free software, downloaded onto your computer, remembers your sign-in name and password for each site you visit.

"If you're like most people, you fall into the bad habit of using the same password information in every site so you can remember them. But a bad guy can remember them, too," says Todd Lowdon, vice president of business development for eBoodle, in Mountain View, Calif. "We make it easier to use different passwords. You don't have to remember your passwords because we remember them for you."

eBoodle also allows you to save your credit card numbers and address on their servers for one-click shopping. Again, no site is hack-proof, but Lowdon says his service is much more secure than storing your information on your personal computer or using the same passwords on each site you visit. What's more, if your information is hacked and it's eBoodle's fault, they promise to refund your money.

More assurance

An additional line of defense is WebAssured. WebAssured has several ways to help protect you from E-commerce fraud. Merchants become members of the WebAssured partnership, and, therefore, they must meet certain privacy and moral standards set by WebAssured. Lloyd's of London insures WebAssured transactions. If you're burned by one of their merchants, WebAssured will refund your money directly.

They also offer a new service called ShopAssured. Downloaded to your computer, ShopAssured browses the Internet marketplace with you. It supplies background information on companies, including a merchant's official name, address, phone number, contact, whether the company is a WebAssured member, and any complaint history that is registered with WebAssured.

"You know about the site before you take the risk," says Travis Morgan, president and chief financial officer for WebAssured, in Carmel, Ind. If you get burned by a merchant, you can register a complaint online with the Automated Dispute Resolution System. The complaint is automatically forwarded to the merchant and WebAssured steps in to mediate a reasonable solution. WebAssured services are free.

The next time you're ready to log on and shop 'til your Internet connection drops, keep in mind that just as you'd protect your wallet in the mall, you have to protect yourself on the World Wide Web.

-- Posted: Feb. 24, 2000


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