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Q: Is shopping on the internet safe?

A: Yes, shopping on the internet is just as safe or safer than mail-order or even shopping in a store. The fact is that this year, on-line shoppers will spend over $5.7 billion dollars according to International Data Corp. The main concern of on-line shoppers is that their credit card information will somehow end up in the wrong hands. Many web sites use Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) technology to encrypt the credit card information that you send over the Internet. These sites usually inform you they are using this technology. You may also check if the web address on the page that asks for your credit card information begins with "https:" instead of "http:"; if so, this technology is in place.

Before submitting any personal or secure information, check the bottom of your Internet Explorer browser for a Padlock icon. A locked padlock tells you that the site you are at is a secure server. Netscape Navigator shows a broken key in the lower left hand corner if the site is not secure. If the key is whole, it's safe to send your credit card information. It is actually safer to transmit your credit card info over the Internet than it is to use your credit card around town.

What most people don't realize is that shopping with your credit card is actually safer than paying by check. In the event that there is a problem with your purchase, the credit card company will remove the purchase from your bill and the on-line merchant is not paid. In the event that your credit card number is stolen, the credit card companies do not hold you responsible for any unauthorized purchases.

For more information about shopping on the internet, go to http://www.safeshopping.org/ . It's a website that was put together by the American Bar Association to provide helpful facts.

Q: I like to surf the Internet, but haven't yet bought anything online because I'm nervous about giving out my credit card number over the Net. I keep hearing horror stories about people having their card numbers stolen on the Internet. Just how much risk is there, really?

A: It varies, depending on how the site to which you're sending your number is set up. On the whole, giving your credit card number over the Net is considerably less risky than giving it over the phone (especially a cordless phone), and way less risky than handing it to some waiter in a restaurant, who disappears with it and could easily make who-knows-how-many imprints off it. Any web site designed to accept credit card orders should be set up with proper encryption and secure data transmission, on a server protected by a firewall and good physical security. While you have no way of knowing how well protected the server is, you can tell whether the data are being sent securely. In the address window of your browser (near the upper right corner) where the URL (address) of the web site appears, the first 3-5 letters show the transfer protocol. You'll usually see something like http://www.sacbee.com/. A secure transmission will use https instead of http at the beginning.

But what if the site isn't secure? Even so, the nature of the Internet makes it less risky than giving the number over the phone or in person. When a file is sent out over the net, it is cut up into very small packets of data. Each packet is labeled and numbered, so that they can be re-assembled once they're received, like beads on a string. Each individual packet goes from the originating computer over phone lines to the next node in the system, where a special type of switch called a router sends it over whichever available line has the least traffic. The packet may bounce back and forth between computers halfway around the world from each other a dozen or more times before reaching its destination. Each packet goes by a different route, as the traffic on the system fluctuates every millisecond. While it is possible for some dedicated hacker to snag all the pieces of your card number and re-assemble them, it isn't easy to do, and probably isn't worth the hassle for a small volume of card numbers. The sites that have really large volumes of transactions, like Amazon.com or Dell Computer, usually have elaborate security systems. The only places where the numbers are all together are at the beginning of the chain (your computer) and the end (the merchant's computer). If each of those is properly secured, it's at least as safe as walking around with the card in your wallet.

All in all, sending your credit card information over the Web is not terribly risky; however, the potential for misuse makes people nervous. It's rather like fear of flying: we all know that many fewer people are killed in plane crashes than car wrecks, yet most of us feel much more anxious about entrusting our lives to a tin can with wings on it than driving down the freeway in a tin can with wheels!

   
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