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  • Shop Safe, Shop Smart
    Tips for secure online shopping
    If you spent any of your hard-earned money online this past holiday season, you were part of a growing trend: online retail holiday sales grew an impressive 25 percent over the previous year, according to the latest numbers.

    More and more people are cozying up to the idea of shopping online, and for good reason. With some basic security know-how, anyone can revel in the speed and convenience that online shopping offers, without worrying about keeping their financial data secure.

    Whether you've been buying online for a while or you haven't climbed on board yet, the tips for safe shopping below can help you shop with confidence.

    Encryption is Your Friend
    Any shopping site worthy of your business uses a technology called Secure Sockets Layer, or SSL, to encrypt (i.e., scramble) any information sent between your Web browser and the site. SSL turns sensitive information into a stream of gibberish that only your Web browser and the site you're shopping at can decipher. Even if your data is somehow intercepted on its way to or from the site, it will be unreadable.
    There are two ways to tell whether the Web page you're viewing uses SSL. The first is to look at the Web site's address, or URL, in the address bar of your browser. The address of any page that asks you for your credit card number or other sensitive information should begin with https:// (note the letter "s"; non-secure sites begin with http://).

    The second way is to look for a closed padlock icon somewhere in your browser window. Depending on the browser you use, the padlock might appear along the bottom of the window or in the address bar itself. Some newer browsers make it even more obvious that you're viewing a secure page. For example, recent versions of Mozilla Firefox highlight the entire address bar in yellow while displaying secure pages.

    Note that most shopping sites don't encrypt all of their pages, just those that ask for sensitive information, e.g., the checkout pages.

    Password Savvy
    As critical as encryption is, it isn't the whole security story. Passwords are just as important, and if they're easily compromised, even the strongest encryption can't protect you.

    You've probably noticed that most shopping sites make you register before you can buy anything. When you choose your site password, make sure you choose one that is (a) tough for anyone else to guess or crack and (b) unique (i.e., you haven't used it elsewhere).

    It's a chore, to be sure. But there are tools available to help take some of the hassle out of it. For choosing strong, random passwords, you can use a site like Password Generator or one of various password generator programs available for Windows and Mac OS.

    To securely store all the passwords you've created, you can use a program like the free Password Safe for Windows or the Keychain tool included with Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X.

    Know Your (Liability) Limits
    Along with all the technical security measures, a smart shopper knows the law when it comes to credit and check/debit card fraud.

    Since buying online usually means using a credit or check/debit card, make sure you understand your card's fraud liability policy. That knowledge could come in handy if someone gets hold of your account number and goes on a shopping spree.

    Scary as that prospect may sound, rest assured that the law is on the consumer's side. For one thing, there are U.S. federal laws that limit your liability for fraudulent charges on credit and check/debit cards. Many card issuers' liability policies are even more consumer-friendly; you may even have zero liability in many cases. Check your card agreement for the details.

    Credit Card Numbers That Aren't
    Even if your liability is limited, there's still the possibility of identity theft if your credit card number gets into the wrong hands.

    To put your mind at ease about that, many card issuers now offer "virtual" account numbers to help put your mind at ease. These are temporary, limited-use numbers that you can give to online merchants in place of your real card number. Your purchase is charged to your account just as if you had used your real number.

    Check with your card issuer to find out whether you can create virtual account numbers.

    The Dangers of Public PCs

    If you often use computers at libraries, cafes, and other public places to access the Internet, you may be tempted to use them for online shopping.

    Although they may be fine for general Web surfing, public computers are risky when it comes to entering the types of sensitive information you typically enter while shopping.

    These computers can be infected with malicious software that can steal your private information. Stick to computers you have more control over, such as your home or office PC, or a laptop or handheld computer.

    Watch for the Scam
    Finally, a note about online scams.

    If you've done business at a site and you begin receiving emails that appear to be from that site, don't automatically assume those emails are legit. They could be phisher email scams.

    Since these scams appear to be from a legitimate site you've dealt with before, these emails cause some people to let their guard down. If you receive such an email, it doesn't necessarily mean your private information has been compromised. Phishers try to boost their chances of finding a victim by masquerading as the most popular shopping sites.

    EarthLink's ScamBlocker tool can help you avoid becoming a victim. ScamBlocker is available as part of the EarthLink Toolbar and EarthLink MailBox.

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