Monday, November 30, 2009

Helpful online security tips for the holiday season


Over the years, I've been asked by students and staff about the safety of online holiday shopping. This is no surprise, considering the 24/7 convenience it offers those of us who work full-time or are focused on completing the semester and attending classes. And for those of us who are already online taking classes.

As we begin the week with "Cyber Monday," I'd like to share a few practices to keep the Pierce community "cyber safe" when shopping online.
  • Use a secure browser (SSL): This is usually either Internet Explorer or Firefox. Make sure you have a current version. If you're sharing any private information or buying online you should look for "https://" in the address bar where the Web site address is displayed (that "s" is for "secure"). Another way to determine if a Web site is secure is to look for a closed padlock displayed at the bottom right, or upper right corner of your screen. If that lock is open, you should assume that it is not a secure site.

  • Shop with companies that you know: Anyone can set up shop under any name online (even playing off a more established retailer). This is called "spoofing." To protect against it, you can download free software called SpoofStick that can help you understand if the site is real or fake. If you're not familiar with a merchant, ask for a paper catalog or brochure to get a better idea of its merchandise and services. And make sure you determine the retailer's refund and return policies before you place your order.
  • Keep your password(s) private: Remember, NEVER give any personal information in response to an email or phone call, regardless of the source. No company or business will request your password or private information. A common scam to be aware of is a notification that your account has been hacked and you should "fill out the page or form to get your account reinstated." Nope, don't do it! Be creative when creating your password. Avoid using a telephone number, birth date, or a portion of your Social Security number. Instead, use a combination of numbers, letters, and symbols. For example, instead of GOEAGLES you can use G0e@G1eS.
  • Pay by credit card or charge card: If you pay by credit card or charge card online, your transaction will be protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act. Under this law, consumers have the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while the creditor is investigating them. In the case of unauthorized use of a credit or charge card, consumers are generally held liable only for the first $50 in charges. Some cards may also provide additional warranty or purchase protection benefits. I also suggest that you have a separate credit card reserved for online transactions only. This helps in tracking your purchases and reviewing your billing statement. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has some great information on this as well. Also, some credit card companies have a software download that lets you create a one time "virtual" credit card number. The Washington Post recently covered this -- check with your provider to see if it's offered.
  • Keep a record: Be sure to print a copy of your purchase order and confirmation number for your records. Also, you should know that the Federal Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule covers orders made via the Internet as well. This means that unless stated otherwise, merchandise must be delivered within 30 days, and if there are delays, the company must notify you.
Remember, these pointers are just a start. Above all else, use your head! If you don't feel comfortable with a retailer's site, don't use it. If someone on eBay makes you feel uneasy, don't purchase anything from them.

Most of all, enjoy the holidays and shop safely!