Written by Lyndsey Morgan
The Internet is an exciting tool that puts vast information at your fingertips. With a click of a mouse, it lets you buy an airline ticket, book a hotel, send flowers to a friend, or purchase your favorite stock.
Good deals, convenience and choices abound on the Internet. But before you use all the Internet has to offer, be "cyber" smart and make the most of your online experience.
Easy as ABC
When exploring online, think ABC to remember the privacy and security questions you should ask about a company.
A - bout me. What information does the company collect about me and is it secure?
B - enefits. How does the company use that information and what is the benefit to me?
C - hoices. What choices do I have about the company's use of information about me? Can I opt-out of information uses and how?
• Protect Personal Information — This page has a lot of good online shopping privacy tips, including the things people should know about an online retailer’s use of customer information.
• Steps to Take to Avoid Online Fraud — Here is a good overview site on avoiding online fraud when making purchases over the Internet.
• Using the Internet Safely — The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has this extensive fact sheet on Internet Privacy and the questions that every Internet user should ask about the sites they visit.
Security on the Internet
Shopping online offers lots of benefits that you won't find shopping in a store or by mail. For example, the Internet is always open - seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And, bargains can be numerous online. Shopping on the Internet is no less safe than shopping in a store or by mail. Keep the following tips in mind to help ensure that your online shopping experience is a safe one.
Use a secure browser.
This is the software you use to navigate the Internet. Your browser should comply with industry security standards, such as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). These standards scramble the purchase information you send over the Internet, helping to secure your transaction. Most computers come with a browser installed. You also can download some browsers for free over the Internet.
• Securing Your Browser — Tips for making all the major Internet browsers more secure on an individual’s computer can be found here.
• Secure WWW Browser — The information on this page can help Internet users figure out if their browsers are operating securely when they visit different sites online.
• SSL: How it Works — This page describes how Secure Sockets Layer works to keep personal information secure online.
Shop with companies you know.
Anyone can set up shop online under almost any name. If you're not familiar with a merchant, ask for a paper catalog or brochure to get a better idea of their merchandise and services. Also, determine the company's refund and return policies before you place your order. These should be posted on the company's Web site.
• Retailers' Return Policies — The return policies of several major online retailers can be found on this page from Consumer Reports.
Keep your password(s) private.
Be creative when you establish a password, and never give it to anyone. Avoid using a telephone number, birth date, or a portion of your Social Security number. Instead, use a combination of numbers, letters, and symbols.
• Password Safety — Besides giving tips for creating a secure password, this site also explains how to keep Internet passwords from falling into the wrong hands.
• Password Safety Tips — These basic password safety tips from Ball State University can be applied to nearly any Internet site.
• Secure Password Selection — This is a good article that describes how consumers can develop safe and secure passwords for any website.
Pay by credit or charge card.
If you pay by credit or charge card online, your transaction will be protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act. Under this law, consumers have the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while the creditor is investigating them. In the event of unauthorized use of your credit or charge card, you are generally held liable only for the first $50 in charges. Some companies offer an online shopping guarantee that ensures you will not be held responsible for any unauthorized charges made online, and some cards may provide additional warranty, return and/or purchase protection benefits.
• Fair Credit Billing Act — University Federal Credit Union offers this helpful summary of all the protections offered under the Fair Credit Billing Act.
• Using a Credit Card: Your Rights and Responsibilities — The Federal Trade Commission offers this easy-to-follow guide on how to protect credit card information online.
Keep a record.
Be sure to print a copy of your purchase order and confirmation number for your records. Also, you should know that the federal Mail/Telephone Order Merchandise Rule covers online orders. This means that unless stated otherwise, merchandise must be delivered within 30 days; and if there are delays, the company must notify you.
• Consumer Guidelines for Shopping Direct — Consumers can benefit from this information on their rights as related to product shipping from the National Mail Order Association.
• Know Your Online Shopping Rights — The University of Oklahoma Police Department has put together this basic overview site on consumer rights when it comes to online shopping.
Pay your bills online.
Some companies let you pay bills and check your account status online. Before you sign up for any service, evaluate how the company secures your financial and personal information. Many companies explain their security procedures on their Web site. If you don't see a security description, call or email the company and ask.
• Managing Debt With Online Bill Pay — Clear Point Credit Counseling Solutions describes the benefits of paying bills online and describes how do so securely.
Privacy on the Internet
Technology now provides companies with the ability to collect information about you and potentially give that information to others. While the Internet can serve as a tremendous resource for information, products and services, you should be sure to safeguard your privacy online by following these tips.
Keep your personal information private.
Don't disclose personal information--such as your address, telephone number, Social Security number or email address--unless you know who's collecting the information, why they're collecting it and how they'll use it. If you have children, teach them to check with you before giving out personal --or family-- information online.
• Children's Online Privacy Protection Act — The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) protects the online privacy of children under age 13.
• Rules and Tools for Protecting Personal Privacy Online — Here are some good guidelines for protecting personal information online from the Online Privacy Alliance.
• Top 12 Ways to Protect Your Online Privacy — The Electronic Frontier Foundation provides the top ways to keep private information from falling into the wrong hands online.