Before typing your credit card information in, look at the beginning of the Web address. It should read "https:--" rather than just "http:--." Or look for the closed lock icon in the lower right-hand status bar of the browser window.
No indicator is foolproof, however. Some new fraud perpetrators have found ways to forge security icons. To confirm its authenticity, double-click on the lock icon to display the security certificate for the site. The name that the certificate is issued to should match the name of the site. If the name differs, you may be on a fake site, according to the Anti-Phishing Working Group at the Federal Trade Commission.
"Any Web site that doesn't have a secure payment page, that should be a red flag," Salter says.
Protect your computer.
Install firewalls and update anti-virus software to keep your machine from being compromised. Firewalls will help keep out unwanted intruders and anti-virus software will protect you from bugs.
"It's like changing the oil in your car and making sure your brakes work," Chestnut says. "You shouldn't go out on the road if your car isn't maintained. The same goes, you shouldn't go on the Internet if your computer isn't maintained."
EBay and various browsers now offer Account Guard, which you can download onto your toolbar to warn you if you go on a fake Web site.
Pick a safe payment method.
Do not send cash. Do not wire money through Western Union. Use a payment method that offers substantial protections.
If you use a credit card, you can contest the charge if something goes wrong or you don't get your merchandise. When using PayPal (an eBay company), there are protections built into the system so that merchants don't get your bank account or credit-card number. Both the credit-card issuer and PayPal can work with merchants if you have problems or disputes.
Remember to check your bank, credit- and debit-card statements regularly to make sure that all of your transactions are accounted for and genuine. If anything is awry, contact the financial institution immediately.
Last, but not least, use common sense.
Don't be tempted by prices that are unrealistically low. Contact the seller, ask questions and get a comfort level before you decide to do business. If you feel uneasy about anything in the transaction, don't go through with the purchase. Shop at sites in which you're already familiar with the physical store.
"If the deal is too good to be true, it probably is," Chestnut says. "Don't throw common sense out the window."
Now that's advice worth keeping online and off.
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