Tips for safe online holiday shopping

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By The Staff

Do you want to avoid one of the almost 46,000 malls or shopping centers in the United States during this holiday shopping season? Do you hate to circle endlessly to find a parking space at the mall? Do you despise wall-to-wall crowds and the opportunity for an ID thief to nab your personal information or steal your packages? You are not alone.

This holiday season, 49 percent of Americans will opt to shop online, spending almost $33 billion. It is also predicted that 72 percent of the shopping public will research products online. Is that smoke rising from your computer that I smell? Our computers are busy!

Online shopping has some real advantages. You can shop 24 hours a day, avoid long lines at the checkout counter, easily conduct comparison shopping, find a wide selection, get lower prices, and many times merchants will throw in free gift wrapping and shipping.

In spite of these incentives, a recent online survey found that 74 percent of e-consumers still have concerns about shopping online. Consider these safety tips:

• Before you enter your personal information at the end of your transaction, make sure that a “gold padlock” shows in the top or bottom line of your browser window (if you use Internet Explorer). It might be somewhere else on your browser if you use another system. Also, look for “https://” at the beginning of the address line for improved security. (In the past you would see only “http://”, without the “s.”)

• Shop at sites that have a real-world presence. Retailers with a store in your community may allow returns or exchanges for online purchases.

• Make sure a phone number, address and e-mail contact information are listed on the website where you shop.

• One of the latest identity-theft security options is called a “virtual credit card.” They are currently offered only by MBNA, Citibank, Discover and Paypal. These banks have arrangements with online merchants that allow them to make payment for your purchases without providing your credit card number to the retailer. You enjoy the benefit of not having your actual credit card number stored on the retailer’s computer system. Using your credit card may give further protection against consumer dissatisfaction with a product.

• Remember that a shipping date is only an estimate — you probably will not receive damages/consideration if your item arrives late.

• Check the retailer’s policies — you know, that really fine print — for online returns and procedures for inaccurate orders or the reception of damaged goods.

• Seventy-four percent of e-consumers choose online retailers based on the recommendation of friends and family. Don’t automatically trust advice from those known only to you through social networking sites like MySpace.com, Facebook.com or other chat rooms. While surveys show that consumers trust the advice of friends over experts, your cyber-friends may not necessarily be good friends.

• Consider doing all of your price comparison online and then place your actual order over the telephone.

• Make sure you have updated spyware and anti-virus software installed and that your firewall is turned on before you give information to online shopping retailers.

• Read the “privacy policy” on a retailer’s website to discern what information they are gathering and how it will be used before you do business with them.

• Avoid making purchases from public computers, as in libraries or a “business center” in a hotel.

• Be vigilant about “phishing” attempts. If, after you have completed your transaction, you receive an additional e-mail asking you to enter personal information, as part of confirming your online order, go to the telephone and call the retailer to determine if it has a need for additional information.

• An old adage says, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.” If something online smells bad, your sense of smell is probably pretty good — go elsewhere for your shopping.

The online shopping experience is still new for many. Online shopping can be a great, convenient and rewarding experience, with some appropriate cautions. I trust these suggestions may assist you in experiencing a safe and happy holiday season.

To schedule a Power Against Fraud Seminar, or for assistance, call the district attorney’s fraud line at 303-271-6980, or e-mail casefraudline@jeffco.us. CASE is a partnership of the district attorney and the Community to Prevent Financial Exploitation.