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Online shoppers beware
Sacramento Bee


December 01, 2005

It used to be that holiday shopping concerns primarily focused on things like finding a parking spot at the mall.

These days, a good portion of consumers worry about cyber security. With U.S. shoppers expected to spend about $26 billion online this holiday season, concerns about the Internet safety of their financial and personal information are on the rise, experts say.

"People really want to shop more online for a variety of reasons, but at the same time they are more concerned than ever about something bad happening to them," said Tim Callan of VeriSign Security Services, which makes e-commerce security software.

According to a recent survey issued jointly by the Business Software Alliance and Forrester Research, 61 percent of respondents say their online holiday shopping decisions this year are affected by concerns about Internet security - with 24 percent saying they will not shop online for seasonal gifts because of those concerns.



Callan said increases in online use have spawned more and more security problems such as ID theft. And publicity about those problems makes many would-be shoppers wary.

Still, he said, as long as people take appropriate measures, "shopping online is perfectly safe."

One of the main ways to protect yourself when making online purchases is to be sure you are on a "secure" Web page when entering sensitive information, such as a credit card number.

"Don't put in any information that you wouldn't tell a stranger unless you are on a secured site," Callan said.

A secured site encrypts information flowing between the merchant and the shopper, meaning it can't be understood by anyone who might intercept it during the transaction, Callan said.

Such sites are indicated by an "https://" at the beginning of the Web address. The "s" denotes a secure site. Generally, the bottom of the Web browser will also feature a small icon of a locked padlock, indicating the site is secure.

Companies like VeriSign won't issue a "security certificate" clearance that enables such encrypted transactions without verifying that the business is legitimate, he said.

Though it's not tied directly to online shopping, security experts also warn about "phishing" in which cyber thieves send out e-mails disguised to look like they come from a trusted source, such as a merchant or bank that the buyer already has a relationship with.

Phishing e-mail often contains a link that takes the consumer to a bogus Web site that looks legitimate, but asks for sensitive information such as Social Security and credit card numbers.

Rather than opening the e-mail, the consumer should go directly to the Web site whose name is contained in the e-mail, Callan said. Any legitimate information will be on that site, he said.

The best policy is skepticism. "In general," Callan said, "if it looks suspicious, be suspicious."


(Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service,

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