Online shopping requires caution

Editors note: This is one of several columns that I wrote for the Columbia Missourian. They were originally called Your Digital World

You did it, didn’t you?

You probably went shopping last week and braved the hordes at the mall for the traditional post-Thanksgiving bonanza.

I used to take part in that bargain hunting free-for-all, until I found the Internet.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past few years, you’ve probably heard about the ups and downs of e-commerce.

So with the threat of hackers, or more likely, your e-tailer going out of business, what’s an online shopper to do?

Security – Far too many Hollywood movies have portrayed the stereotypical angst-filled teen-age hacker crashing supertankers or stealing credit card information. Though not as bad as some in the movie biz would have you believe, you should take precautions when spending online.

Before entering any credit card information on a Web site, make sure to look along the bottom of your Web browser. In both Internet Explorer and Netscape, there is a lock icon; if it’s closed and locked then you know that some security is in place.

The icon indicates that your information is encrypted, if a hacker gets hold of it, all he’ll get is a piece of meaningless code. You may hear about 128-bit encryption – this refers to the strength of the code hiding your credit card number. You should make sure to upgrade your browser to the 128-bit encryption version, visit Microsoft’s or Netscape’s site to download it. If you pick the right file, you should get a warning about not exporting the program outside the Unites States; if not, keep looking.

Still, 128-bit Secure Socket Layer encryption isn’t foolproof. You should check with your credit card provider, many of them offer programs you can download that generate a one-time number for the retailer to use. Even if it gets hacked, it’s useless to the would-be credit card thief.

Trust – Once you’re sure your credit information isn’t being stolen, you need to actually get the merchandise you order.

How can you trust your e-tailer?

The first best step is to do a search on Google for the name of business. After the first few hits you should start seeing news items about them. If they mention things like “profitable” and “successful,” way to go! If you’re seeing “Better Business Bureau complaints” and “disreputable” or “bankrupt,” you might want to reconsider.

If you’re satisfied that the company you want to order from isn’t going out of business or to jail, make sure to scour the site thoroughly for contact information and any devious fine print. If you’re still not sure, try calling the place; they may even take phone orders.

No bargain’s worth it – Often when I’m looking for an upgrade to my computer, I find a lot of sites with really cheap prices on the part I want. But a quick look over their poorly designed site that’s lacking contact information and a physical address often turns me to a more trusted seller with a higher price. The extra money you spend is for piece of mind.

Baby steps – Finally, if you’re just not sure you’re ready to dive head first into e-commerce, try visiting the site of a store in your area.

Some of these “brick and mortar” companies offer added benefits such as being able to return merchandise to the store, and a guaranteed human being to yell at if your order gets screwed up.

About Chris

Python developer, Agile practitioner trying desperately not to be a pointy haired boss.
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