Take charge of online shopping

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 3, 2000

You’ve blown the candle’s flame out of your jack-o’-lantern, and though the smoke still rises gently from ol’ Jack’s eyes, it’s time to start thinking about, of all things, holiday shopping.

Friday, November 03, 2000

You’ve blown the candle’s flame out of your jack-o’-lantern, and though the smoke still rises gently from ol’ Jack’s eyes, it’s time to start thinking about, of all things, holiday shopping.

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Already Christmas trees and mistletoe litter the shops and malls. Manhiem Steamroller’s holiday hits are pumped through the store’s speakers ad nauseam.

Christmas, Kwanza or Chanaka – gifts large and small need to be bought, and there’s little more than a month and a half to get it all done.

To avoid the hustle and bustle of shopping in stores, more Americans are turning to online shopping to fill their loved one’s wish lists.

Christmas shopping online last year was a $7 billion business, according to an estimate by PC Magazine. Still, widespread reports of late deliveries and poor customer service by some e-tailers showed there was still work to be done.

While it may take only a couple of clicks of the mouse to purchase that perfect gift, the delivery of items is not as quick as the virtual world. So shoppers may want to start early to ensure delivery before the holidays.

Timely delivery is only one of the factors shoppers should consider before buying online. More often, cyber buyers are wary of the security and privacy of information that is being transmitted over the Web.

"The main thing, when giving out credit card numbers, is to make sure you’re on a secured site," said Mark Hultgren, a computer technician instructor at Riverland Community College. Hultgren is also involved the upcoming e-commerce courses at the college.

Each browser has its own unique way of letting the user know if a site is secure. With Explorer, there is a padlock on the bottom of the scene. An open pad lock indicates an unsecured site. If the chain icon on the bottom of your Netscape scene is broken, you’re at an unsecured site.

That means information transmitted is not encrypted, giving hackers the opportunity to snag credit card numbers as they travel the information super highway.

Secure sites have the ability to encrypt credit card account numbers. The numbers are decoded by a key specific to that Web site, Hultgren explained.

"The key goes along with the encryption and each site has its own encryption code," he said.

Hultgren said folks should be more wary of giving their credit card numbers out over the phone as opposed to the Internet, due to the protection provided by the encryption codes.

And the technology is improving to provide even more security.

"With some credit cards, they regenerate a new number every time it’s used," Hultgren said. The credit card company transmits a differently encrypted number each time it’s used. That means, even if a hacker is able to get into a site, get a number and decode it, it’s still no good. That number will not be used again; it’s only good for that one purchase at that one site.

It’s also important to make sure purchases are being made from a legitimate Web site that provides goods, Hultgren cautioned. One probably doesn’t have to worry about Amazon.com or major retailers’ Web sites, but beware of some of the more obscure sites.

If there’s no phone number or mailing address, it could be a scam. You’d be better off shopping at another site.

Check the security and privacy policies. Every reputable

site should have a clearly stated and easy-to-find statement

of their policies. Make sure the privacy policy is something

you can agree with. Reputable merchants will also make it clear

to you that your credit card transaction is conducted only on

a secure server.

Be sure the company is an Authorized Internet Retailer. Look

for a statement or seal assuring you that the retailer is authorized

by the manufacturer to sell online. This is your assurance that

the warranty that comes with your purchase will be honored by

the manufacturer, and that the equipment is intended to be sold

and will operate safely and correctly in the U.S.

Look for a clear physical address, toll-free support numbers,

etc. – A site with just an e-mail address or one that charges

you to talk with them is a site to avoid.

Check the level of customer service. Are there sales support

people who can give you more information on a product? Are customer

service representatives there for you in case you want to change

your order or track the shipping of your purchase? And especially

important with more complex items, like computers or consumer

electronics, are there technical representatives to help you

to install and use what you buy?

See how responsive they are. You may want to test a company

prior to placing your order by sending an e-mail asking for info

and see how long it takes to get a response. Within 24 hours

is a good benchmark.

Can you tell by looking if the product is in stock? Check

to see if they offer real time inventory status. A good Web store

will indicate up front whether or not the product you want is

in stock and ready to ship.

Know what the shipping charges are before you order. The

merchant with the lowest price may charge a heftier shipping

fee, take longer to get your order out, and/or ship via a slower

delivery method. Check also if they have the crucial accessories

you’ll need, and what they charge for them. Shipping and add-on

charges sometimes make a low-price e-tailer’s total charge higher

than its competitors.

Read the return policy. Picking the perfect gift can be a

tricky task, so find out how long an evaluation period the merchant

offers. Ask about restocking fees on products you return in "like

new" condition. There shouldn’t be any. Also, among the

best merchants, it’s not uncommon to find they pay the cost of

return shipping.

Ask if they ship the products from their own warehouse. If

they don’t, then they depend on a third party, and that can affect

delivery time. The e-tailers that ship from their own warehouses

are the only ones with total control over getting the product