From the Actrix Online Informer December 2009

by Rob Zorn

Shopping safely online

Okay, so we're coming up to Christmas. Most of us are looking forward to being off work and spending some time with friends and family. One thing we are all not looking forward to, however, is jostling through hordes of fellow shoppers at the mall while we try and buy gifts. That is, provided we have been able to find a parking space.

It really does make sense to shop online as much as you can. More and more people are doing it, and reporting positive experiences. There's so much available that it actually makes sense to shop online all year. Things can be cheaper (because a net-shop doesn't have to maintain physical premises) and even the delivery fees you sometimes have to pay are a small price for the convenience of home delivery.

For the last couple of years we've published articles on some great online shops you can buy from in New Zealand (and overseas). You can check out articles from 2007 and 2008 here, for example, to get a few ideas, but most big retailers like Whitcoull's, Rebel Sports, Kirkcaldie and Stains etc, will let you shop online. If you buy enough, many will waive delivery fees. So, if there's a store you shop at a lot, why not check out its website and save yourself some hassle?

This year we won't repeat the list of online shops. I thought instead we could look at removing some of the barriers people feel there are to shopping online – the biggest of which is security.

Is shopping online safe?

In reality, shopping online is as safe as shopping in a bricks and mortar store. There are slightly different risks but with common sense and just a little knowledge you will be fine. Most people who shop online will tell you they have no problems. Those that have had problems can probably also tell you what mistakes they made to get in trouble. The biggest risk is in handing over your credit card number, but that can just as easily be stolen from you in a shop as it can online.

Rule number one, never type in your credit card number if you are not on a secure server. It's easy to tell whether or not that's the case. Look for the "S" for security. Make sure the payment page your are on has "https" in its web address instead of just http. When you are in the secure section of a website, you will also see an icon for a locked padlock on your browser, either on the address bar or on the bottom right corner. Normally information you send over the internet can be read by anyone with access to the server it is passing through, but if you are connected to a secure server, your informationis encrypted, so it can't be understood at all until it reaches the store where it is decrypted.

Rule number two: Stay current on security software. This means making sure your virus protection software regularly updates itself. If you're not sure yours does, then ask someone to check it for you. This is important for any internet use, not just when you're shopping online.

To be doubly safe, some people organise a separate credit card for online shopping and they make sure it has a low credit limit. This means that if someone does misappropriate their credit card number, potential damage will be limited. Most banks will not hold you liable if your credit card number is stolen and used, provided you have been behaving responsibly and safely with it online.

Lastly, make sure you log out once you are done purchasing online!  While most reputable online stores will automatically log you out after a certain idle time, it's best to never risk having your personal payment details openly stored in your browser. As an additional precaution, you might want to clear the history, cookies, and other private data from your web browser to ensure nothing is stored that someone else might stumble upon.

Firefox: Tools/Clear recent history
Internet Explorer: Tools/Delete browsing history.

But it's all so confusing!

Online shopping has become really quite easy to follow and do. In most cases, shopping websites have shopping cart software on them. Any time you like a product you can usually click to add it to your cart. That doesn't mean you're committed to buying it. Look for button on the site like "Add to Cart". There's usually a "View Shopping Cart" button so you can see what items you've collected while browsing that site. While you're viewing your shopping cart you'll also have tools to remove items from it or clear it completely. Once you've finished shopping, the "Proceed to checkout" button will take you to a form where you can enter delivery details, your card number etc. This is where you need to check you're on a secure server. You'll almost always be given two or three opportunities to confirm your order before the final payment button is presented.

Remember, online retailers are as keen to avoid hassle as you are, so they're usually at pains to make sure you understand what you're doing and that you have plenty of opportunity to pull out if you're not comfortable.

I like to hold things I'm buying in my hot little hands

Good for you, but with most products, that probably isn't all that necessary. I wouldn't recommend you buying a new lounge suite online because you would want to feel the fabric and look at it in natural light, and see how comfortable it is before you spend lots of money. But for most products, such as books, CDs, etc, a description and the picture on the website will probably be fine. And in many cases, you'll be buying products you've bought before, so will know exactly what you're getting.

Things can get lost in cyberspace

Well, yes they can, but the chances that something will be mis-delivered or that your order will be misplaced are actually less with electronic transactions than they are with paper transactions or by phone. If you're buying online you're the one typing in your address and other details, so they are more likely to be entered correctly than if someone was writing them down or typing them in as you spoke those details to them.

Online systems will also be based on software that keeps things efficient at the vendor's end, too. They will know where your order is and be able to access it quickly if you make enquiries about it. But to be doubly sure, always check for a message that your order has been successfully placed when you click the online payment button, and print out or save the order confirmation. Make sure you note your order or customer numbers too, if they are available.

Again, online retailers don't need hassle, so they will usually have good systems in place to see that your order is dealt with efficiently, and that it is easily tracked. Online purchasing software has really come a long way.

Try and get your goods delivered at a time when you will be there or your package might end up with your dodgy neighbours, or some other passing opportunist. Most confirmation orders will specify what method of delivery will take place and when delivery is likely to occur. And, of course, many items can be sent to you through regular mail. Insurance is usually available, too, for expensive items.

Getting help

Even with the best of intentions, something can still go wrong. If it does, the first thing you should do is approach the merchant to work through the issues. Look at the contact information listed at the site (and don't shop from a site that doesn't make it easy for you to contact them). If you cannot contact the merchant or if you think the merchant's response has been unreasonable, you can contact Shop Safe New Zealand for advice. For serious problems, you could try Consumer Affairs or the Commerce Commission.


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