Readers' Forum - January 2004

by Rob Zorn
from the January 2004 Newsletter

If you'd like to ask a question or request some help on any Actrix or Internet-related matter. Simply send me an e-mail with the word "forum" in the subject line. I'll try and answer your question by return e-mail, and will also post the answer here for the benefit of others who may have a similar question or problem. By the same token, if you read something here and think you may have something to suggest, please feel more than free. Please also note that questions and answers may turn up under the Helpful Tips section on the Actrix home page (www.actrix.co.nz).

I'm really grateful to my support team, too, for their input here when some of the questions also have me a little stumped.

Geoff B writes: Many people I know buy things through the Internet, quoting their credit card details. Some habitually do their grocery shopping this way. I have never done this as it seems to me to be asking for trouble to broadcast this information to the world. As you say, not the sort of thing you would put on a postcard (Just How Secure is E-mail? - Sept '03). Is there any safe way to purchase through the net?

Hi Geoff, I'm actually a big fan of purchasing over the net with my credit card and have done so many many times without problems. There are just a couple of simple things you need to be mindful of.

In my article, Just How Secure is E-mail, I warned that e-mails are like the electronic equivalent of a postcard. They can be read by anyone with access to your mail server. For this reason I would never, never, ever put my credit card details into an e-mail. But reputable firms selling goods online will never ask you to e-mail them your credit card details. If they do, they should be avoided like the plague.

Normally you're invited to submit your credit card details by means of an online form. This is certainly the way supermarkets work. This type of online form should work very differently from an e-mail in that it will interact directly with the vendor and not send details in an unsecured format. The online form will transmit the details to the vendor using secure encryption so that any data transferred travels in a completely indecipherable format until it reaches the vendor where it is unencrypted. In this sense, it is secure while it travels, unlike an e-mail.

You can tell for sure when an online form is on a secure site. The URL will change from something like http://orderfromme.com to https://orderfromme.com. This tells you that you are now interacting with a secure server and that your data will be encrypted. Another way to tell you're on a secure site is to look for a little fastened padlock icon down to the bottom right of your screen (to the lower left if you're using Netscape). You should look for these signs before you click the Submit button.

What happens when your credit card details get to the vendor is another matter. Who knows for sure how securely they store your details or how many staff have access to them? Of course this is not a problem limited to internet purchasing. It is a reasonable question in any situation in which you hand over your credit card. However, there is no more reason to fear this from an internet firm than there is from a restaurant you're physically at.

My final word of advice is to stick with firms that are well known and already have a good reputation, especially if buying overseas. Don't let fear of credit card fraud make you miss out on the great opportunities that come with buying online. If your details are stolen and used by somebody else, you're not liable, the vendor is. They are required by law to verify that any purchaser is authentic. Even better news is that, in cases of fraud, you won't generally have to deal with the offending company. Your credit card company should refund your money and their experts will seek redress themselves from the vendor in question.

More information can be found in my article Is It Safe to Use Your Credit Card Online?

Graham asks: How can I know the actual cost in NZ dollars, of items for sale on line, particularly from .com sites? Is there a standard currency? Are there a settings in Windows or IE which will automatically convert into local currency?

Hi Graham, It would be nice, but I don't think there is a standard currency on the Internet the way that you might be meaning. Most prices quoted are in United States dollars, and occasionally there will be British pounds or Euros given at .com sites.

You'll rarely find anything at the site itself that will convert that price to New Zealand dollars, and I'm not aware of Windows coming with its own currency converter. Thankfully, though, doing your own research is pretty easy. There are quite a few sites out there that offer currency conversion as a free service (entering "currency converter" into Google brought up lots). They all work pretty similarly. Enter the price, the currency it's in and the currency you'd like to convert it to (e.g. NZ dollars). Then simply click Submit.

You might want to check the site's policies to see how often they update their figures, but most say they do their best to give the most up-to-date information. See the FAQ at http://www.xe.com/ucc/ for example (Universal Currency Converter).

Most sites offering goods for sale will make it clear what currency they are in. If in doubt, and the site is American, you can count on the amount being in American dollars. Usually there will be contact details on the site so that you can check and clarify if you need to. After that make your payment with your credit card (see the question above) and you'll find the kiwi dollar amount turning up on your credit card statement in the course of time.

Alistair writes: Greetings, I'm looking at getting a broadband connection, but would like to have a local ISP (Wellington based) for this, and so Immediately thought of Actrix, my current ISP. What I was wondering, is what Actrix offers compared other broadband providers that would somewhat Justify a $149.95 monthly payment for Jetstream Starter alone, when other ISPs offer the same connection for 1/5th of the price?

Hi Alistair, Good question. There is a major point of difference between what Actrix offers and what others offer when it comes to JetStart (JetStream Starter). Yes, our price is high compared to others, but we offer a truly uncapped option. This means, for the price we ask, you can download as much as you want and there will never be any other excess usage charges.

Other ISPs will offer cheaper JetStart access, but will cap the amount you are allowed to download each month. They will then charge you excess usage fees if you download more than the allocated amount; e.g. 5-10 Gigabytes/month for the slowest option, and much less if you choose a faster option.. These fees are usually pretty high.

The Actrix JetStream Starter price becomes quite attractive to users who do a lot of downloading and who have to take those excess usage charges into account. We have deliberately chosen to charge the high price and offer the unlimited usage because we felt that would be a good section of the market to target. Some customers who didn't tend to use so much traffic moved on to other options, but a lot of customers stayed on the rate, and found themselves paying less per month. We have also added many customers since then.

You'll be pleased to know that due to some price reductions at our end, and some increased efficiencies, we're now able to offer our unlimited JetStart at $69.95/month instead of $149.95.

Bert writes: Hello Rob, I read somewhere about what an IP address is, how one can find out through the RUN command what it is, and how it changes daily. However I did not understand it all. Please can you explain what it is ,what it does, and how I can get to it on Windows XP? Regards Bert

Hi Bert, Some of the finer points will be left out of this answer to protect those who don't want to get bogged down in too much technical detail. What you're asking about is what's called a dynamic IP Address. It is dynamic because it changes not just daily, but every time you connect. You can also get static IP Addresses, but these aren't usually used for dialup connections, and we may go into those another time.

IP is short for Internet Protocol. Every time your computer connects to the Internet, it is given an IP Address by Actrix. It's part of what happens when your computer talks with our computers as it comes online. An IP Address is a unique set of four numbers separated by dots such as 202.154.128.129 (it's also known as a dotted quod). Our computers keep a series of these numbers and hand one over to you each time you go onto the net and connect to web page servers, mail servers etc.

The first reason you need an IP Address is because you need something to identify you as you travel around the net. Each time you request a web page, your browser will first need to say to the web server something like, "Hi I'm 202.154.128.129. Can I have this web page please?" It would be nice if your browser could say, "Hi, I'm Deirdre's computer. I'm connecting through Actrix, and I live in sunny Wellington." However, because computers speak Number rather than English, this isn't going to mean much to them.

But wait! There's more!

You also need an IP Address because it is more than just a temporary name. It is also a pathway. It's not strictly true that you "visit web sites." It is more accurate to say that they are downloaded to you. The web server at the other end uses your IP address to know where to send the data that makes up the web page. It will use those numbers to find its way back to Actrix, and once it has passed the data to us, we'll use the IP Address to know which modem line to squirt the data down so that it gets back to the right customer (all this is happening very very quickly, of course.).

By the way, Actrix keeps a record of which customer is given which IP Address. Occasionally we are contacted by Internal Affairs or by the police because they want to know who was given one of our IP Addresses at a certain time when something naughty was going on, so there are still ways of identifying people online and if they act illegally, chances are they'll be found out.

There are at least two ways of finding out what your current IP Address is.

Firstly and most easy, simply visit the site www.whatismyip.com. This site will display your IP Address for you when you visit.

Another more complicated method is to use you Run command.

  1. Establish a dial-up connection to Actrix;
  2. Click on Start, and then Run;
  3. In the Run box, type in "command" without the " and click OK;
  4. Type "ipconfig /all" (again without the ") into the DOS command box which comes up (black and white box). This will report back all the information about any network equipment in your computer (Network cards, wireless adapters and dial-up modems);
  5. In the list of information it reports, look for the section headed "PPP" or "PPP Adapter" The information below here is related to your dial-up connection, find the IP Address line, and you have your current IP address.