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Online Shopping for Newbies

Everyone is talking about online shopping. It's easy and takes a lot less gas and hassle than a trip to the mall. Online shopping puts unbelievable choice right at your fingertips. From large department stores to specialized boutiques, the latest designer fashions and closeout specials, it's all there. You'll find toys, high-end art and collectibles, cutting edge computers and electronics, flea market finds and auctions galore. In fact, you can find just about anything imaginable online, and some things that truly are not.

Online shopping is a godsend to shut-ins, busy working folks and anyone who, for whatever reason, cannot get out and do heavy-duty shopping. Now you can have a world-class selection of gifts at your fingertips and get most of your shopping done in a single evening without ever venturing into traffic, or trudging through crowded malls.

In many ways, online shopping is a return to the good old days when delivery services were a given. This alone can make the difference between sending token flowers and dispatching something great on special occasions. Your selections can be wrapped and on the road to delivery in less time than a drive to the mall. And for the times when flowers really are the right choice, you can now actually pick what you want and those selections are incredible.

Shopping online beats catalogue shopping without any trouble, too. Online you have incredible choices with far less time and effort than pouring through stacks of catalogues and sitting with a phone on hold only to be told that your color or size is not available. Formerly tiresome ordering tasks can now be done in minutes with the click of a mouse.

Although gift delivery is certainly a plus on special occasions, it doesn't stop there. You can buy a whole new wardrobe, even a wedding or prom dress, office supplies, a new computer, you can redecorate your home, or shop for a new one, dabble in the stock market, balance a checkbook, pay your bills and even buy a car at your computer. So, what's the catch?

Street smarts are the rule online and off. Everyone already knows when you go shopping, there are certain things you do and don't do when it comes to your money and your personal security. Online that goes double.

At the Computer:

In addition to a set of well-honed cyber street smarts, when shopping online you should first and foremost be comfortable with your computer. There are a few things to remember if you are new to online shopping. The first is to click the BUY button only "once." It may take a couple minutes for the transaction to process. If you click buy twice, you will be making the same purchase twice. There is not generally too much of an issue in clearing up the double purchase, but it can be a hassle. Double clicking is a common error for first-time online shoppers.

The second big rule is to keep copies of everything relevant to the transaction. Print out the pages with the description and prices of the items you order. Print out your credit card receipt. Most companies will email you a copy of the receipt as well. Keep that too, and make sure it matches your online information.

As all computer users know, sometimes a glitch will derail the best-laid plans. If your printer is down or goes down when you try to get your print outs, find the "Print Screen" key on your keyboard. Press it. Then go into your word processing or paint program and click "Paste." You should now see a picture of what was on your screen at the time you made your purchase. This is the next best thing when a printer is not available.

Okay, you are comfortable with your computer already. All possible glitches are covered and you are ready for some serious shopping. What about those so-called cyber smarts?

Cyber Street Smarts:

Smart online shoppers, just like those in the physical world, know there are certain things you do to take care of yourself. They know to be aware of the neighborhood where they are shopping. They know to be aware of the reputations of the places where they do business. They know to watch their wallets, and first and foremost, when they are around strangers, they know to be aware of who might be scrutinizing them just a little too closely.

Know Who You are Doing Business With:

Do a little research. Anyone can build a website. If you encounter an unfamiliar company where you want to shop, find out who they are. Look for an address. Be wary of any company that does not list one. An address is no guarantee, but you can use it to check references with the Better Business Bureau, BBB. Their online site at http://bbb.org/ has nationwide listings.

Sometimes you may want more information than the BBB provides. In this case, after the BBB check, use your favorite search engine and try an "about search." The difference in an "about search," and just looking for the site, is that you already know where the site is; now you want to find out what people are saying about it. Generally, just putting "about" in front of the company name will get you started.

For a very small purchase, you might want to dispense with all this investigating. But do use a low limit credit card. That way if anything does go awry, it isn't that far awry. Yes, we all know about the $50 liability limit, but the low limit card can be a hassle saver online.

You may choose not to use a debit card online at all. Many debit cards do not offer the same protections against fraud as credit card companies. You could be putting your whole bank account at risk.

While you are at it, be sure to check out the return policy and guarantee. Online and off, most good companies do accept returns, either by providing a cash refund or product exchange. Note, however, shipping costs are typically not refunded for online purchases.

Online Security:

After you've found exactly what you have been looking for, checked out the seller, and their return policy; the next thing you need to do is make sure the site is secure. Secure means your personal information is encrypted in transit to the seller's server. This prevents unauthorized (hacker) access and possible misuse of your credit information.

Examine the URL in the address bar. If the site is encrypted you should see an "s" directly after the http - like https://... The whole site will not be encrypted, but the order page for the transaction should be.

Other things to look for - depending on your browser, you may see either an open or a closed padlock, or a whole or broken key. If the key is broken or the lock open, you should assume that the site is not encrypted.

Sometimes security issues get tricky. Suppose you personally know the owner, it is a solid local business, but there is no encryption system in place and they expect you to transmit your credit information online. With small businesses, this is most often a case of not knowing better, that does not, however, mean that you do not. In cases like this, look for a phone number and call in your order. If there is no phone number and no mailing address, you should seriously consider whether you want to risk an unsecured online transaction.

Common sense is the rule online and off. Guard your personal information, including Social Security Number, bank account information and passwords. No reputable merchant has a need for your Social Security Number and it is not standard policy to ask for it when you buy your groceries for instance. Requiring this for a routine purchase should send up a red flag and you should immediately take your business elsewhere.

Some online crooks will do whatever they can think of, in all kinds of official looking ways, to get your private personal information. If you call, they may personally assure you that they do indeed need your bank account and password to sell you that computer game. No way, just because it looks good, and they sound sincere, doesn't mean that it is or they are, and you may not know there was ever a problem until you see your credit report.

Remember:

Online and off, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Don't let the heat of the offer lull you into abandoning your good common sense. Of course, you could miss the deal of a lifetime, and that is exactly what the unscrupulous want you to think. Likely as not, online and off - if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Shopping the net is destined to change the way we do business, but it is still a new frontier, with many of the uncertainties that go with it. The only way to really be secure online is to develop your cyber street smarts and sometimes, even that may not be enough. It will certainly level the field though, and by keeping your cyber smarts well honed, you should be able to safely shop the net.

About the author:

Regina Garson teaches at Virginia College in Huntsville, Alabama. For more about online shopping, you can visit her website at http://lafindz.tripod.com

Written by: Regina Pickett Garson

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