Shop smart

Dos and don’ts for shopping safely online

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Last month I purchased a magazine subscription for a friend, sent flowers to my mother, bought funky underwear at a California boutique and ordered a month’s supply of perishable groceries—all without lifting a finger. Well, that’s not entirely true. But a finger’s all I lifted because I did my shopping online.

I used to peruse websites, credit card in hand, with total peace of mind. However, last year a series of online casino charges showed up on my VISA bill. I’m no gambler, so I reported the fraudulent activities. Luckily, my card has a zero liability policy, meaning I didn’t incur the costs. But the experience made me wary of disclosing my credit card information without a second thought.

Be a safety girl

I still shop online, but now I follow a few simple rules before buying anything on the Web. First, I always use a secure browser when I’m in the mood to buy. And I only purchase products from businesses I know and trust. A well-established online merchant will use layered security architecture—with firewalls, authentication, and security applications—to ensure that all my personal information is well protected and encrypted.

When it comes to actually paying for my purchases, I take advantage of some of the alternative forms of payment available. Today shoppers can use credit cards with substitute card numbers which generate random account numbers for every online purchase made. Also, there are third-party payment services such as PayPal, acquired by eBay, and Toronto-based CertaPay, which allow users to transfer money to an online account without revealing their card or bank information to the seller.

Then there are digital wallets such as MSN Wallet and hyperWALLET which provide the same type of third-party advantages, with the added convenience of storing and encrypting personal data. This enables shoppers who frequent sites to register and log in without entering their personal and financial details again and again. Third-party programs also allow users to safely send money to anyone with an e-mail account.

Online shopping dos and don’ts

Whether you’re a first time buyer or an experienced online shopper, there are a few basic dos and don’ts that you should be aware of before heading out on your virtual shopping spree:

Do protect your personal information. Only share your credit card, social insurance, or social security number with companies and institutions you know and trust.

Do use a secure browser. Browsers are the software applications we use to surf the net (Netscape, Internet Explorer, Opera, Lynx, etc.). Browsers are available for free downloading over the Internet. Your browser should comply with industry standards to ensure that the information you send over a secure connection is scrambled. Some browsers inform users that they are visiting a secure site with a window or a lock at the bottom of the screen. To make sure a site is secure check to see if the address begins with https://. It’s the “s” that indicates it’s safe.

Don’t purchase goods from spam offers. Replying to spam encourages more spam and it’s often the source of scams.

Do be your own detective. Examine the Web address of merchants before making a purchase. If you hit a link from another Web page, you run the risk of being led astray. The page may look like CanadianTire.com, but if the address read: CanadianScam.com, you will realize that you’re not buying the real thing.

Do read the fine print. Be sure you understand the terms and conditions of your purchase. If you are buying clothing that may not fit or a perfume you may not adore, read the policy on exchanging, returning or canceling orders.

Do keep a written or printed record of your transaction. Follow up by reading your credit card statements every month.

Don’t (ever) send personal information over e-mail. E-mail doesn’t provide the same security as online merchants.

Do make sure your computer is free of spyware. Spyware is software or hardware installed on a computer without the user’s knowledge which gathers information about that user for later retrieval by whomever controls the spyware. There are free downloads to combat spyware. To learn more click here.

To find out if your computer is already being ‘spied’ upon, you can use Ad-Aware or Spybot Search & Destroy.

You can also purchase anti-spyware programs that will protect you in real-time. Two of the best free ones are: SpywareBlaster or SpywareGuard.

Don’t forget online shopping can be fun and worry-free. Just keep these precautions in mind. Then log-on and start buying!