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BBB offers tips for shopping safely online

By Maria-Jose Subiria

msubiria@news-daily.com

It might seem enjoyable to shop online from the comfort of one's own home, but those hunting to steal personal information may be lurking in cyberspace, according to a top official with the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

Online shopping may make buyers more vulnerable to hackers and scammers, said Fred Elsberry Jr., president and CEO, of the Better Business Bureau Serving Metro Atlanta, Athens and Northeast Georgia, Inc. The local BBB is offering consumers numerous tips to protect themselves and stay safe while shopping online, he said.

"Taking steps to avoid the fraud online will result in a much happier holiday for everyone -- except, of course, for scammers and hackers," said Elsberry, in a prepared statement.

Consumers need to protect their computers, by installing the most recent updates for spam filters, anti-virus and anti-spyware software and a secure firewall, said the CEO.

Shoppers should surf trusted web sites, added Elsberry. To double check whether or not a web site is safe, one should start with the BBB to investigate the seller's reputation with consumers, and the business' reputation and record for customer satisfaction. Information is available on the BBB's web site, www.bbb.org.

"Always look for the BBB seal and other widely-recognized 'trustmarks' on retailer web sites and click on the seals to confirm that they are valid," he said.

Protecting personal information is another way of shopping safely online, said Elsberry. Consumers should take their time in reading the web site's privacy policy, and clearly understand what personal information is being requested by the site, and how it will be used. If the web site does not include a privacy policy, consumers should beware that personal information may be shared with others without permission, he said.

Deals that sound too good to be true, may be in fact, he said. These types of offers may be advertised on web sites or in unsolicited e-mails, especially for hard-to-get items, he said.

"Consumers should always go with their instincts and not be afraid to pass up a 'deal' that might cost them dearly in the end," said Elsberry.

Phishing is another way hackers and scammers may get to one's personal information, he said. Legitimate businesses do not send e-mails claiming problems with an order, or an account, to lure consumers into giving away financial information. If a shopper receives this type of e-mail, he or she should call the phone number where the initial purchase was made, to confirm if there was in fact a problem with the transaction, he said.

"If there are any doubts about a site, BBB recommends right-clicking anywhere on the page and select 'Properties,'" said Elsberry. "This will let you see the real [web site address] and the dialog box will reveal if the site is not encrypted."

It is recommended that consumers pay with a credit card, because under federal law, charges can be disputed if the item is not received, said Elsberry.

"There is no general three-day cancellation right, but consumers do have the right to reject merchandise if it's defective or was misrepresented," said Elsberry. "Otherwise it's the company's policies that determine if the shopper can cancel the purchase and receive a refund or credit."

Shoppers may also dispute if unauthorized charges were made to their card. Furthermore, many credit card issuers have zero liability polices, where the owner of the card pays nothing, if someone steals the credit card number and uses it, he said.

Credit card statements should be checked often over the phone, or online, said Elsberry. Do not wait for the paper statement, he stressed.

Consumers should never wire money online, while on web sites such as Craigslist, www.craigslist.com, he said.

He said shoppers should keep the documentation of their order, after completing a purchase.

"There may be a final confirmation page or the shopper might receive confirmation by e-mail," he said.

For more advice on shopping safely online during the holidays, visit, www.bbb.org/us/consumer-tips-holiday.