Attention, Shoppers

How to shop safe online this Christmas

Now it's crunch time. This is the most punishingly high-pressure part of the year, with immovable December deadlines marching ever closer. Nerves will be frayed, stupidity will flare up, and you need to give your people all the help and support you can.

No, not IT people. With the holidays coming, the ones who are likely to go over the edge are the users.

Users who will be doing online shopping -- some of it from home, but plenty of it from their desks at work.

Users who are more rushed and distracted, so they're more likely to make dumb mistakes -- including the kind that open big security holes.

Users who are more worried about holiday parties and gifts than about the projects that require their input, participation or sign-off.

Users who will soon be bringing in gadgets they buy or receive over the holidays (Christmas may be a month off, but Hanukkah is just days away).

In short, users who are about to present IT with major potential problems.

Or, just maybe, a great opportunity.

Look, this happens every December: You struggle against users' inexorable holiday impulses -- and lose. This year, why not go with it?

You need to remind them of appropriate-use policies. And holiday changes in help desk staffing. And the fact that IT projects still need to get done.

Why not make the centerpiece of that annual memo a list of tips for safe online shopping?

Maybe your users are allowed to e-shop from work. If not, they'll be doing it from home on PCs they also use to work remotely. It's in your interest to keep them safe. Besides, it makes you look like you really care about users.

How? Start with a brief "With the holidays coming..." recap of your appropriate-use policy. Then run through some safe-shopping tips. Here are a dozen to get you started:

  • Shop with online merchants you know and trust.

  • Order from secure Web sites, which can be identified by a locked padlock or unbroken key icon in your Web browser (unsecured sites may show an unlocked padlock or a broken key).

  • Keep printouts of everything, including copies of your order; Web pages describing what you ordered; Web pages that tell the seller's name, address and telephone number; and any e-mail confirmations you get. And make sure you add the date if it doesn't automatically appear on the printouts.

  • Use credit cards for online purchases, which will limit your losses if your credit is used without authorization. But it has to be a real credit card, not a debit or check card. You may want to use just one credit card for all online payments, to make it easier to detect wrongful charges.

  • Don't give out your Social Security number.

  • Don't give out unnecessary information.

  • Don't send your credit card number by e-mail.

  • Don't give out your passwords for e-commerce Web sites to anyone.

  • Don't give out your bank information; no one needs it for an online order.

  • Double-check every Web site address.

  • Don't click on links within e-mails. Type in the Web site's address yourself -- very carefully.

  • Remember, if the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.

You can also direct users to online sources of additional information, including the Better Business Bureau Web site (www.bbbonline.org/ OnlineShopTips), the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs23-shopping.htm).

Then finish by reminding them of reduced help desk hours, ongoing projects and policies about personal gadgets. They'll be more likely than usual to read your memo all the way to the end.

And who knows? By offering helpful advice and gentle reminders, you might just make these holidays happier -- and safer -- for everyone.

Frank Hayes is Computerworld's senior news columnist. Contact him at frank_hayes@ computerworld.com.

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Frank Hayes

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