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Protecting Yourself From Online Fraud, Phishing, and Disappointment
by: Michael Kabel

The Internet grows larger every day, with more people than ever taking advantage of its limitless potential to educate, to provide goods and services, and to trade information. Unfortunately, with more people than ever doing their shopping online, more shoppers will fall prey to bogus Internet sites, phishing scams, and many other forms of online theft.

Presented below is an online shopper's "survival guide," including helpful ways to make sure the site you buy from is truly legitimate and well-protected from outside tampering. A section of dealing with auction sites is also included.

What is phishing?

A recent term to enter the popular discourse, "phishing" refers to any attempt by criminals to impersonate an otherwise trustworthy Internet business, as a means to obtain a consumer's personal or credit card information.  It's most commonly done by email or instant messaging, usually with the request that the consumer's information be verified through clinking on a link provided within the message. 

Phishing scams have traditionally involved such well-known Internet businesses as ebay and PayPal. However, recent scams have broadened to include the impersonation of banks, online banks, and even the Internal Revenue Service.

Experts recommend smart and timely identification as among the best anti-phishing defenses. Phish emails will frequently include spelling errors or bizarre syntax or grammar. Some will also include links to sites that are clearly non-authentic to the company allegedly represented.

Rather than use any links in an email a user suspects of containing a phishing scam, the user can contact the business' Web site directly instead. There, they can read up on any phishing alerts and also request verification that they were contacted.

Determining a Web site's legitimacy

In a bit of business irony, one of the safest ways to determine if a Web site is a legitimate business uses communication tactics that predate the Internet itself.

Experts recommend verifying a site's real world presence before finalizing an email purchase. Checking for a phone number and mailing address can typically accomplish this, usually by clinking the site's "About Us" or "Contact Us" links. If you're especially concerned, you can phone or email the site's customer service department to suss out their business practices.

Look for independent validations and certifications

The best online stores and merchants will have independent, third-party endorsements attesting to their reliability and exceptional customer service capability. The Better Business Bureau offers its seal of approval to businesses meeting very strict criteria. TRUSTe, another validation agency, also provides their link to sites with outstanding security and privacy measures. Other sites include the similar "Hacker Safe" icon, which certifies that the site was found secure against hacking threats on a daily basis.

Other quality assurance seals include the WebTrust and SysTrust seals. These seals can only be granted by a certified public account after thorough inspection of an online store's business practices and quality controls.

Verify their reputation by checking them out with others.

The online marketplace has grown so big that there are now sites specifically dedicated to policing other Web site's business practices. Besides the Better Business Bureau (http://www.bbb.org) there are independent evaluation sites where consumers can review and post their opinions of everything from individual products and services to entire businesses.

Among the two largest consumer evaluation Web sites are Bizrate.com and Epinions.com. Following a brief registration consumers can post lengthy reviews and testify – for better or worse – about a business or products value on a variety of criteria.

Message boards are also sometimes a worthwhile use of time when determining a company's merits and faults. Finding a message board related to the product or business you're interested in will sometimes produce dozens of testimonials.

Making sure the business' transaction software is safe, private

Practically every reputable online business shows its encryption and credit card protection credentials prominently atop their checkout pages. While their encryption methods will vary, there are ways to verify their security simply by inspecting the nooks and crannies of your browser window.

A secure Web site's address in the address bar will read "https" rather than "http." You will probably also see a tiny padlock symbol near the bottom right hand corner of the browser window.

Many online businesses will also detail their security precautions and encryption techniques in great detail somewhere on their site; this information can usually be found on the "About Us" or "FAQ" pages.

Auction sites, PayPal, and saving money on shipping and handling

Online auction sites such as Ebay have become a true modern-day mecca for buying and selling almost every kind of goods and product ever invented. With its explosive popularity, however, many disreputable merchants sometimes sell bootleg, counterfeit, or otherwise substandard product under misleading pretenses.

Before bidding on an online auction item, ask the seller any questions you might have regarding the product. The photographs accompanying the auction can sometimes be misleading. When it's time to make payment, use a secure online payment system such as PayPal.

Another way to prevent disappointment or worse is to bid only on items sold by merchants with a positive approval rating of 99% or above and who have at least a light blue star rating. This means the merchant has conducted at least a hundred transactions already, and has a virtually pristine customer satisfaction record.

Protecting yourself after the transaction

Before making payment, review the online seller's shipping and returns pricing policies, so you'll know what to expect during and after the item's arrival. Many online merchants, especially on auction sites, tack on exorbitant shipping and handling charges that can inflate the total product cost.

After the item arrives or payment is complete, check your bank balance or credit card statement to verify the proper amount was billed to your credit account.

What to do if you believe you've been defrauded

The Bureau of Consumer Protection is a branch of the Federal Trade Commission that works to protect consumers from all types of fraud, including fraudulent business online. Contact their Consumer Response Center at 1-877-FTC-HELP or through the FTC’s Web site (www.ftc.gov). The National Consumer League also operates a Fraud Information Center accessible at 1-800-876-7060 or online at www.fraud.org.