Shop at Secure Web Sites

How can you tell if a Web site is secure? Secure sites use encryption technology to transfer information from your computer to the online merchant’s computer. Encryption scrambles the information you send, such as your credit card number, in order to prevent computer hackers from obtaining it en route. The only people who can unscramble the code are those with legitimate access privileges. Here’s how you can tell when you are dealing with a secure site:

If you look at the top of your screen where the Web site address is displayed (the “address bar”), you should see https://. The “s” that is displayed after “http” indicates that Web site is secure. Often, you do not see the “s” until you actually move to the order page on the Web site.
Another way to determine if a Web site is secure is to look for a closed padlock displayed on the address bar of your screen. If that lock is open, you should assume it is not a secure site.

Of course, transmitting your data over secure channels is of little value to you if the merchant stores the data unscrambled. You should try to find out if the merchant stores the data in encrypted form. If a hacker is able to intrude, it cannot obtain your credit data and other personal information. Be sure to read the merchant’s privacy and security policies to learn how it safeguards your personal data on its computers.

Research the Web Site Before You Order

Do business with companies you already know. If the company is unfamiliar, do your homework before buying their products. If you decide to buy something from an unknown company, start out with an inexpensive order to learn if the company is trustworthy.

Reliable companies should advertise their physical business address and at least one phone number, either customer service or an order line. Call the phone number and ask questions to determine if the business is legitimate. Even if you call after hours, many companies have a “live” answering service, especially if they don’t want to miss orders. Ask how the merchant handles returned merchandise and complaints. Find out if it offers full refunds or only store credits.

You can also research a company through the Better Business Bureau or a government consumer protection agency like the district attorney’s office or the Attorney General. Remember, anyone can create a Web site.

What’s Safest: Credit Cards, Debit Cards, Cash, or Checks?

The safest way to shop on the Internet is with a credit card. In the event something goes wrong, you are protected under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act. You have the right to dispute charges on your credit card, and you can withhold payments during a creditor investigation. When it has been determined that your credit was used without authorization, you are only responsible for the first $50 in charges. You are rarely asked to pay this charge.

Make sure your credit card is a true credit card and not a debit card, a check card, or an ATM card. As with checks, a debit card exposes your bank account to thieves. Your checking account could be wiped out in minutes. Further, debit and ATM cards are not protected by federal law to the extent that credit cards are.

Using only one of your credit cards for online purchases can make it easier to spot fraudulent activity. Likewise, turning on text message or email alerts for purchases can be a great way to quickly detect fraud.

Never Give Out Your Social Security Number

Providing your Social Security number is not a requirement for placing an order at an online shopping site. There is no need for the merchant to ask for it. Giving out your Social Security number could lead to having your identity stolen.

Keep Your Password Private

Many online shopping sites require the shopper to log-in before placing or viewing an order. The shopper is usually required to provide a username and a password. Don’t have your computer or device “remember” your password if a website has your payment information or other personal data.

Never reveal your password to anyone. When selecting a password, do not use commonly known information, such as your birthdate, mother’s maiden name, or numbers from your driver’s license or Social Security number. Do not reuse the same password for other sites, particularly sites associated with sensitive information. The best password has at least eight characters and includes numbers and letters.

Check the Web Site Address

The address bar at the top of your device’s screen contains the web site address (also called the URL, or Uniform Resource Locator). By checking that address, you can make sure that you are dealing with the correct company.

Don’t click on any link embedded within a potentially suspicious email. Instead, start a new Internet session by typing in the link’s URL into the address bar and pressing “Enter” to be sure you are directed to a legitimate Web site.

Always Print or Save Copies of Your Orders

After placing an order online, you should receive a confirmation page that reviews your entire order. It should include the costs of the order, your customer information, product information, and the confirmation number.

We recommend you print out or save a copy of the Web page(s) describing the item you ordered as well as the page showing company name, postal address, phone number, and legal terms, including return policy. Keep it for your own records for at least the period covered by the return/warranty policy.

Often you will also receive a confirmation message that is e-mailed to you by the merchant. Be sure to save and/or print this message as well as any other e-mail correspondence with the company.

Learn the Merchant’s Cancellation, Return and Complaint-Handling Policies

Even under the best of circumstances, shoppers sometimes need to return merchandise. Check the Web site for cancellation and return policies. Be sure to check for the following:

Who pays for shipping?
Is there a time limit or other restrictions to the return or cancellation?
Is there a restocking charge if you need to cancel or return the order?
Do you get a store credit, or will the company fully refund your charges to your credit card? If the merchant only offers store credits, find out the time restriction for using this credit
Does the merchant post a phone number and/or e-mail address for complaints?
How long has the company been in business?
Will they still be around when you need them?
Is there an easy, local way for you to get repairs or service?
Is there a warranty on the product, and who honors that guarantee?
What are the limits, and under what circumstances can you exercise your warranty rights?

Don’t expect less customer service just because a company operates over the Internet. This is especially important if you are buying something that may need to be cleaned or serviced on occasion.

Consider Using Single-use Card Numbers

Consumers using some brands of credit cards can get “virtual credit cards,” or single-use card numbers, that can be used at an online store. Virtual credit cards use a randomly generated substitute account number in place of your actual credit card number. They can also be used to buy goods and services over the phone and through the mail but can’t be used for in-store purchases that require a traditional plastic card.

With this free service, you never need to give out your real credit card number online. Among the card companies offering it are Citibank and Bank of America. Citibank calls their virtual credit card offering a Virtual Account Number while Bank of America calls it ShopSafe. You can configure the expiration date and the maximum amount allowed for a virtual credit card. Once used, the card is tied to the merchant where it was used, and cannot be used elsewhere.

Understand Your Responsibility for Sales and Use Taxes Online

Generally Internet shopping is sales tax free, but there’s a catch. If an online merchant has a physical presence in your state, it is required to charge you sales tax. In most states, consumers are required to pay tax on online purchases, even if the store doesn’t collect it. Most states call this a “use tax”. You are generally required to pay the use tax if you have goods shipped to you. Many state income tax forms now collect use tax.