Web commerce mostly
safe, but stay wary
You explored Amazon and dived into
eBay, but you left empty-handed. While browsing on the Web, you
shut the Barnes & Noble door behind you without letting your
credit-card numbers escape.
You don't have a problem with handing
your credit card to a waiter who whisks away your precious plastic
for a few minutes. When you call a mail-order catalog company, you
cheerfully give your credit-card information. But buying stuff on
the Web with a credit card? Isn't that dangerous?
"It's much safer to put your credit card
on the Internet with a secure server than giving your card to a
waiter in a restaurant or calling someone and giving them your credit
card over the phone," says Paul Capelli, a spokesman for Amazon.com.
to reducing risks
Just as you would hesitate to hand your card to a fellow selling
sunglasses on the sidewalk, you should steer clear of questionable
retailers on the World Wide Web. You can reduce your risk of unpleasant
surprises while shopping on the Web by employing common sense:
- Know whom you are dealing with.
- Insist on secure transactions.
- Pay attention to terms and conditions.
- Check what other people say about the company.
According to a 2001 shopping online survey conducted
by the National
Consumers League, 43 percent of web surfers say that their biggest
fear is that their credit card numbers will be stolen.
about the online retailer
First, ask how you heard about the site, counsels Walter Effross,
an associate professor of law at American University's Washington
School of Law. "Did you see an ad in The New York Times
or a respectable magazine -- or a spam e-mail?" he asks rhetorically.
You can feel pretty confident with nationally
known brands that advertise on television, in newspapers and magazines,
and on Web banners. At the same time, a little storefront on the
Web might be just as trustworthy and efficient as the big boys.
Let's say your hobby is candle-making and you
want to buy supplies online. You could visit Missy's
Candles, a company that is not a household name but which offers
secure online ordering as certified by VeriSign
and belongs to BBBOnLine,
an online business ethics program of the Better Business Bureau.
No matter how secure and forthcoming a business
seems on the Web, you still might want to check to make sure that
the Web site really is owned by the company that you think is the
The most reliable indicator is a search engine
Run by Versign Inc., the company that assigns Web addresses, Whois
allows you to find out who owns a domain name, the part of a Web
address that ends in .com, .edu, .org, .mil and so on. It provides
contact phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
A well-designed commercial Web site isn't going
to make you go to Whois to find out where it is based and how to
contact people there. Take the site for Missy's Candles, mentioned
above. The company's toll-free number, a fax number and a technical
support number are listed at the top and bottom of the home page.
The street address and an e-mail link are at the bottom of the page,
in which the company explains what it will do with information it
gathers about you. Will it sell or rent your name, mailing address
and e-mail address to other companies? Will it track what you buy
so it can tailor sales pitches to your tastes? A site that has a
"trustmark" from an organization called TRUSTe
has promised to adhere to established privacy principles and comply
with TRUSTe's oversight and consumer resolution procedures.
on secure transactions
The good news is that it is pretty safe to use a credit card
on the Web if you are buying from a reputable seller. The bad news
is that it's not absolutely safe. It is possible, though unlikely,
for a hacker or a dishonest employee to steal your credit card number
over the Internet.
Here are some tips for protecting yourself:
- Enter credit-card information on secure server
- Choose good passwords and don't reveal them
- Use credit cards instead of debit cards.
- Confirm whether your order was taken correctly.
For safety's sake, you should enter credit-card
information only on pages that are on secure servers (or SSLs, in
the jargon of the Web). Usually, your Web browsing software will
alert you when you load a secure page. If you are on a secure page,
you should see a tiny icon of a locked padlock or an unbroken key
in the status bar at the bottom of your Web browser window.
A secure page encrypts the information -- puts
it into secret code -- so that even if someone intercepts the data,
it can't be read.
Usually, if you're buying stuff over the Internet,
the merchant requires you to select a user name and a password.
When you choose a password, write one that can't be guessed easily.
Stay away from the names of pets or family members, birth dates,
your Social Security number or phone number.
Most online merchants reply to an order by e-mailing
a confirmation notice that lists the items and quantities bought.
Check that carefully and respond quickly if there has been a mistake.
Generally, it's safer to use a credit card than
to use a debit card. With some debit cards, you could wind up paying
for the entire loss if a crook taps into your account. On the other
hand, you are liable for up to $50 if someone uses your credit card
Some Web merchants go even further. Amazon.com
and Barnes & Noble, for example, will cover up to your $50 in
liability for unauthorized use of your card that's no fault of yours
-- for example, if someone stole your credit-card information while
you were using their secure server.
the terms and conditions
Many retailers on the Web have a "terms and conditions"
link at the bottom of the home page. You have to look carefully;
the type usually is the size of an ant's eyelash. But some of the
most important information is behind that link.
Information about return policies, for example.
A terms-and-conditions page might have information
not only about return policies but also about shipping rates, sales
taxes, cancellation policies and payment options. Pay close attention
because sales tax and shipping charges can differ.
Mark Elliott Budnitz, a professor at Georgia
State University's Law College, recommends that you print out key
pages and read them on paper to make sure you completely understand
"When you're doing business on the Internet,
it really is different," says Budnitz, who belongs to an American
Bar Association working group that is studying consumer protection
in cyberspace. "You don't have written pieces of paper you
can look at. So an important consideration for consumers is if you
can print something out."
other consumers say
In the future, you might see Web-based message boards for e-commerce
retailers. This is already the case with pay-per-view adult Web
sites, says Mark Tiarra, a consultant for pornographic sites. He
says there are two major message boards that operators of adult
sites can post to, and which customers can peruse to find out who
is considered reputable and who is being criticized.
"Anything the adult industry does filters
down to the non-adult industry," Tiarra says.
You don't have to use only technology to check
up on retailers. Perhaps the best way to discover a store's reputation
is to rely on non-computer-mediated interpersonal communication.
In other words, word of mouth.
-- Updated: Jan. 18, 2002