On your first online shopping trip, you may feel wary and dubious– after all, the news is full of stories about online scammers cheating people out of their money and bank details.

There are three principles to safe online shopping: train yourself to spot scams, learn about browser security and use your common sense.

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people online who think nothing of profiting from others’ misfortunes. Scam products – and even whole scam stores – are sadly a common occurrence. But there are ways that you can protect yourself from them.

First of all, never enter into a private transaction with someone outside of a formal online shop. For example, some eBay scammers may pretend to offer a special deal when they approach you privately, rather than through the website itself. Be extremely wary of supposed sales representatives offering you special private deals, or of amazing “90% off” deals. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Second, be careful how you pay for goods online. Never use untraceable methods like sending cash. While never perfectly secure, the most reliable ways to pay include credit cards, PayPal transfers and EFTs. Never give your credit card or banking details out in an email or instant message, and never fill them in on a suspect, unsecured web page. Payment by credit card should always be done through a secure website. Look for a “verified” logo on the web page. Verification services like VeriSign monitor and quality-check the secure payment process on a website.

Browser security
Your web browser is a very powerful tool when it comes to protecting yourself online. It can warn you of threats, block malicious pop-up windows and alert you when you may be compromising your security by mistake. On top of this, there are two ways you can use your browser to make sure your online transaction is safe. Both of these involve looking for the marks of a “secure” website – that means, a website that has been heavily protected so that it’s extremely difficult for anyone to hack in and see your details.

First, you’re probably aware that every web address starts with “http”. Http is a type of computer language that helps your browser to display websites. Secure sites use something called “https” – the “s” stands for “secure”, and is a mark that the website has been protected. Second, your browser displays a little padlock icon (usually on the bottom right). If the lock is closed, it means that the website has been secured. When both of these signs are present, you can be reasonably sure that the site is secure and your details are safe.

Common sense
Finally, common sense is your most important tool when shopping online. If a brick-and-mortar shop offered bad service, cheated customers and acted unscrupulously, it would not be around for very long. The same principle applies to online stores: if a business annoys, harms or confuses clients, it is unlikely to be successful. The reverse is also true: long-standing online retailers have earned their names with consistently good service, security and quality.

If you stick with well-known retailers, monitor your browser for security warnings and act sensibly and reasonably when giving out your payment details, you can have a rewarding online experience. Happy shopping!

The University of Cape Town Internet Super-User course starts on 20 September 2010. For more information contact Karin on 021 685 4775 or Karin@getsmarter.co.za, or visit www.getsmarter.co.za

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