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By Chandra Orr

September 19, 2008 6 min read


Protecting your identity online gets simple this holiday season

Chandra Orr

Creators News Service

This season, avoid the lines and get your gifts online -- and don't let the cyber-Grinch get you down.

Despite public fears, identity theft is actually in decline, according to a 2008 report from Javelin Strategy and Research. Findings from the study show that Internet-based identity fraud is less severe, less costly and not as widespread as previously thought.

"Contrary to popular belief, consumers do not bear the brunt of financial loses from identity fraud and Internet use does not increase the risk," said James Van Dyke, president and founder of Javelin Strategy & Research. "Most importantly, people are not helpless in protecting themselves from identity theft."

However, that cyber-Grinch is nonetheless prevalent. "Fraudsters are getting creative and leveraging new techniques to commit fraud, so Americans need to be as diligent as ever in protecting their personal information," Van Dyke said.

Take the right precautions and you can shop online safely and with confidence:

* Trust your instincts: If an online deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is, according to Safeshopping.org, an informational site created by the American Bar Association. If you don't feel comfortable with a purchase, listen to your gut. Refrain from making purchases under pressure, be suspicious of prices that are drastically lower than the competition's and keep an eye out for replicas and knock-offs.

Before placing an order, do some comparison shopping and check for hidden costs like exorbitant shipping and handling fees. Look for guarantees as to a product's authenticity and check the terms and conditions of auction websites to find out if you have recourse against fraudulent sellers.

* Do a background check: Type the seller's name into a search engine. Look for red flags like unfavorable reviews and negative news articles.

If you plan to make a purchase from an unfamiliar site, confirm the seller's address and phone number first. If you can't find a working phone number, it's probably not a good sign. Take your business elsewhere.

Check the seller's reputation with the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Nearly 45,000 companies nationwide qualify for the BBBOnLine seal, which holds companies to high standards for ethical online business practices. To find out who made the list, visit bbb.org and click on "Check Out a Business or Charity."

* Shop safe and secure: Never send your credit card number or checking account information through e-mail. Instead, pay directly through the website.

Look for signs that the site is secure -- like a closed padlock icon on your browser's status bar -- and check the URL during the payment process. It should change from http to shttp or https, signifying an encrypted or secure transaction, according to OnGuard Online, a partnership between the Federal Trade Commission and the National Cyber Security Alliance.

Take additional precautions by installing anti-virus, anti-spyware and firewall software on your computer. Be sure to update the software regularly to safeguard against the latest threats.

* Pay by credit: All purchases made by credit card are protected under the Fair Credit Billing Act, according to OnGuard Online. By law, buyers have the right to dispute charges and withhold payment while the creditor investigates the seller in question. If someone uses your card fraudulently, you are generally liable only for the first $50 in charges.

Once you've made your purchase, keep a paper trail. Print, date and save copies of the product description, price, receipt, confirmation e-mails and relevant warranty information. Review the paperwork with your credit card statement, and be on the lookout for unauthorized charges.

* Protect your passwords: Don't use the same password for all of your accounts and website registrations. When selecting passwords, include a combination of letters, numbers and symbols -- and avoid using common words, birthdates and the names of pets and relatives.

To help keep track of passwords, consider using a secure service like Passpack (www.passpack.com), which safely stores and organizes up to 100 passwords, logins and registration numbers using a U.S. Government-approved algorithm to encrypt sensitive information. The service is free, and users can access their information 24/7 from any computer without installing additional software.

* Go straight to the source: Legitimate companies do not send unsolicited e-mail asking for passwords, login names or account verification, but scammers often send them, and they look just like the real thing, according to OnGuard Online.

Never respond directly to e-mail asking for sensitive financial information and never click on a link in one directing you to enter private information. When in doubt, contact the organization directly by phone or by typing the known URL into the browser window.

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