Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Warm, squishy feelings and online shopping (03/2007)

Q: I’ve never purchased anything from a website because I am afraid thieves will steal my credit card number. So, how safe is it, really, to use a credit card on the internet?

A: Your credit card number is already floating around the internet in one form or another even if you never touched a computer. Yep, every time you swipe you card at the local grocery store, your credit card information travels through the internet to the store’s credit card processor using the same secure methods used for on-line purchases.

The vast majority of the “Credit Cards Stolen From Internet” headlines concern hackers breaking into financial institutions and stealing thousands or even millions of credit card numbers at a time. For example, recently, tens of thousands of customers who has shopped at TJ Maxx at various times since 2003 received letters from their banks stating that that their credit card information was stolen from the processor and a new card would be sent to them. My wife finds items at TJ Maxx that are desperately needed for her survival on a daily basis. As a result, we now have shiny new credit cards and are using the old ones to shingle our roof.

Sure, individuals are occasionally targeted but that is actually exceedingly rare. The vast majority of fraudulent credit card numbers are obtained by means that are utterly out of your control. The bottom line is that on-line shopping is quite safe but if you are a newcomer there are a few things you should be aware of that can make your shopping experience even more secure.

First, know the seller. When you shop at a mall, you consider the reputation of the store, the fa├žade, cleanliness, and perhaps whether or not the salesperson is hot. On-line purchases aren’t much different. Shop with companies you know and trust such as www.BooksaMillion.com or www.Crutchfield.com. If a certain website fails to give you a warm, squishy feeling, shop at another site that does.

Secondly, use secure websites. When you type a credit card number into a form on the internet, it can be read by others unless the website is properly secured. Secure sites will have a slightly modified Internet address; rather than beginning with http://, the site's URL will begin with https://. The “s” means the sight is using a secure server. If the little “s” is missing, don’t type in your credit card number.

Thirdly, secure your computer. If you don’t have current, updated antivirus and antispyware programs running on your computer, if you don’t keep up with the security updates from Microsoft, you put your credit card number at risk of being stolen.

Lastly, don’t worry about it! Even if a thief buys a yacht with your stolen credit card number, federal law limits your liability to just $50.00. Most credit card companies don’t even make you pay that unless they suspect you of being really stupid.

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