Sunday, November 21, 1999

A guide to safe shopping online




BY LISA BIANK FASIG
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ask a consumer why she hasn't tried shopping the Internet, and you're likely to get this answer: credit card security.

        About half of the households that do not shop online blame credit card security fears as the reason, according to market research firm Forrester Research.

        Forrester analyst Seema Williams said it takes about one year on average for a shopper to overcome fears about online security.

        Truth is, there are several safety areas of which online consumers should be aware — spending too much not the least of them. Heck, credit card safety could be a minor issue, depending on the site you're visiting.

        Nancy Macagno, new media director at Consumer Reports magazine, thinks familiarization is key. Her advice: Don't go into the fun house without reading the warnings first. Know what you're getting into.

        “You need to look for the kinds of policies (available) and you need to look at what the safety measures are,” Ms. Macagno said.

        It may be a big bore having to read security efforts before buying the latest Dixie Chicks disk, but it could save you a big headache later, she said. And shoppers could be quite pleased at some of the benefits certain online stores provide.

        As a rule: New users might feel most comfortable making first-time purchases on sites that have actual stores (Gap or Macy's) or catalogs (Lands' End and L.L. Bean), because it makes for easier returns. After that, try the most reputable sites — Amazon.com, eToys, or eBay.

        Ms. Macagno breaks safety precautions into five areas:

        • Security: Be sure the site uses encryption technology, and look for the “secure connection indicator” on the Web. A small, open padlock or broken key, for example, mean the site is not secure. The Web address might include the letter “s” after “http” to indicate a secure area.

        Look for an explicit statement about security. Wal-Mart's site, for example, states that it will reimburse users for fraudulent charges made that are a result of credit card information stolen while shopping at the site.

        • Privacy: While certain information is necessary to make a purchase, users should be able to opt in or out of providing certain details. As an option, you can set your browser so the security statement window pops up every time you enter a new site.

        “There should be a clear statement where the site tells you exactly what they're going to do with that information,” Ms. Macagno said. “You want complete disclosure.”

        If there's no statement, think twice about using the site.

        Also, when it comes to picking a password, try to skip the obvious. Birthdays are easy to decode.

        • Who controls the site: Find out who controls the site and how to reach that entity offline. Ideally, get a phone number, in case of a problem or complaint. Know ahead of time how to return an item. If in doubt, send an e-mail with a standard question and see how fast the company responds.

        • Shop around: There are many sites that will do your comparative shopping for you, on price. Among the many so-called ShopBots (as in shopping robots), are: www.smartshopper.com; www.shopfind.com; www.deadpilot.com (for books); and www.autobytel.com (for cars). But, Ms. Macagno warns, remember that a lot of these sites shop only on price.

        • Check the site out: www.bizrate.com compiles other users' shopping experiences of particular sites. Sites that cooperate with bizrate offer a link to its site from their own.

        Also, Consumer Reports offers e-commerce tips, guidelines and ratings at www.consumerreports.com. Membership is $3.95 a month. Once you've done your homework, Ms. Macagno suggests one thing: Be organized. Have an idea of what you want to buy and how much you want to spend.

        “The more specific you can be, the easier it can be for you,” she said.

       



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