With just a click of the mouse, shoppers can buy nearly any product online -- from groceries to cars, from insurance policies to home loans. The world of electronic commerce, also known as e-commerce, enables consumers to shop at thousands of online stores and pay for their purchases without leaving the comfort of home. For many, the Internet has taken the place of Saturday afternoon window shopping at the mall. Consumers expect merchants to not only make their products available on the Web, but to make payments a simple and secure process. However, the same things can go wrong shopping in cyberspace as in the real world. Sometimes it is simply a case of a computer glitch or poor customer service. Other times, shoppers are cheated by clever scam artists.
A recent survey found that 74% of Americans surveyed have purchased a product online because it is convenient and saves time. While the survey reported that over half those surveyed experienced frustration, confusion, or being overwhelmed with information, the greatest concern for online shoppers, 75%, was in sending credit card and personal information over the Internet.
Just as shoppers should take measures to protect themselves in brick-and-mortar stores — such as protecting their PIN numbers when checking out and not leaving purses unattended — online shoppers also need to take sensible precautions. This guide offers advice on how to make your online shopping experiences enjoyable and safe.
2. Shop at Secure Web Sites
How can you tell if a Web site is secure? It uses 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. You can tell when you are dealing with a secure Web site in several ways:
- First, if you look at the top of your screen where the Web site address is displayed, 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 at the bottom of your screen. If that lock is open, you should assume it is not a secure site.
- The third symbol that indicates you are on a secure site is an unbroken key.
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.
3. 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 in Internet yellow pages, through the Better Business Bureau (see listing below), or a government consumer protection agency like the district attorney's office or the Attorney General. Perhaps friends or family members who live in the city listed can verify the validity of the company. Remember, anyone can create a Web site.
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