With simple precautions, online buying can be safe

November 30, 1998|By Bill Husted | Bill Husted,COX NEWS SERVICE

This weekend, as I handed my credit card to the young person with a nose ring at a small shop in the mall, I couldn't help but think of all the people who are afraid to buy anything online for fear some weird hacker will steal their credit card number.

Now the kid with a nose ring was probably an astrophysics DTC student at Georgia Tech, and the woman waiter with a nice tattoo you saw the other day probably is a wonderful person ` but my point still holds.

There is a lot greater chance of credit card fraud in your everyday life than there is when you buy something from an established merchant on the Internet.

When, for instance, is the last time you read about some poor soul in Des Moines being reduced to poverty because he ordered a parka from L. L. Bean's Web site? Newspapers have devoted (rightly so) plenty of space to stories about researchers who have found back doors and flaws in some of the credit card encoding used on the Web.

But you haven't seen a single story about a crook who used those flaws to steal credit card numbers.

But all that said, there are common-sense precautions that will make shopping online safer. None of them has anything to do with algorithms, which is a lucky thing since my premed education was prematurely terminated by a math course on differential equations.

This column will be upsetting to some, especially to experts, because it is mostly common-sense advice ` nothing to do with cookies or setting new preferences for your Web browser. But the truth is that the best way to protect yourself involves the same kind of street smarts you'd use in buying a car or a pair of shoes.

That leads us to the top way to protect yourself when shopping online. Deal only with merchants you know and trust. Sure, a lot of the no-name outfits out there are run by fine people and, yes, this isn't fair to them. But if you restrict your dealings to major stores and Internet merchants, the likelihood of getting ripped off is almost zero.

The problem with dealing with no-name firms isn't restricted to the notion that they are likely to cheat you. More likely than that, by far, are the chances they won't stay in business very long.

Online marketing is a brand new area of commerce and, just as in any new field, plenty of companies will give a good and honest effort and fail. If you stay with the big guys, you are less likely to discover that you just ordered a new computer or set of golf clubs from a company that has joined the list of failures.

The next way to protect yourself ` ironically for all the worry you might have about credit cards ` is to use a credit card that offers good customer service. Most credit card companies will stop payment on a purchase if it is not delivered or if the merchandise was advertised deceptively. Find out the specific policies of your card.

Finally, make sure the online merchant has a way for customers to get in contact outside of e-mail. If you have trouble with the company, you'll want to be able to explain your case to a real human. So consider the customer service of the merchant, and also give extra points for a toll-free number for customers.

If the notion of shopping online suits you then follow these tips and go right ahead.

The real worries from online shopping aren't in theft and crime, but in the shock you get when the bills arrive.

Pub Date: 11/30/98

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