Feature: Ten tips for safe e-shopping

Online retail fraud is forecast to hit US$500 million this year, with about a third of that occurring during the holiday shopping season. While digital shopkeepers take most of those losses, consumers still need to guard their electronic wallets from online thieves.

What do you risk? A digital thief could clean out your bank account, make purchases in your name, and mess with your credit rating. But don't run screaming from the electronic mall. It just takes a little common sense to keep your shopping trips safe. Below are a few of the mandatory precautions.

Keep a Record. Depending on your level of organization, this can be a multicolumn spreadsheet or a scrap of paper that carries a simple list. Whatever the format, you need to track your purchases by the company, item, order number, and date--along with the promised time of arrival. In any case, printing out the verification after making a sale should become second nature.

Find a Phone Number. This is one of the most important ways to check out online merchants. If they have a phone number front-and-center on their Web sites, you can be sure they're committed to customer service. If you need to hunt for the number--or you can't find one at all--they may be less committed.

Admittedly, merchants keep prices down by eliminating the overhead caused by pesky people calling all day with questions. But if you can find no easily discernable point of contact, you may want to take your business elsewhere. At very least, you should get a seller's address.

Never Buy From Spammers. This becomes more difficult, as some of the unsolicited deals that arrive in your mailbox actually look pretty good. And some of them are from familiar companies. So how bad could they be?

Very, if we are to enforce the idea that spam is an unacceptable marketing tool. So if you get word on a name-brand opportunity through spam, contact the company directly and ask for the same deal. Remember: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Verify an Item's Value. Along the same lines, a sweet deal may have a tarnished lining. If a manufacturer is selling something well below the market value, something is probably wrong. In the case of software or CDs, the wares could be counterfeit or illegal copies. When buying software, especially, you need to check for proof of authenticity.

Use Credit Cards, not Debit Cards. It may be tempting to spend digital cash instead of running up charges, but debit cards typically have limited fraud-tracking capabilities.

A crook that acquires your debit account number can drain your checking account and wreak havoc with your personal finances. With credit cards, your losses are relegated to $50 or less by law, and some companies (like American Express Blue) offer guaranteed online fraud protection.

Get a Temporary Credit Card Number. Many credit card companies allow customers to generate temporary credit card numbers that you can use just once or revoke at any time. Developed by Orbiscom, this service imposes tighter controls over your personal information and can immediately track any malfeasance. Companies that offer this service include MBNA, Citibank, and Discover.

Check for Security. Don't enter any information into an online form unless you are certain that the Web site is secure. The tip-offs are graphics of a key or lock. The key is broken and the lock is open if the Web page is not secure. It's also your clear indication that the merchant doesn't have its act together.

Never Give Personal Data. Even if the site is apparently secure, don't release personal information that the merchant doesn't need. There is no reason anyone should ask for your social security or driver's license number, and releasing these is to invite identity theft. This goes double for your password, which should be an obscure letter/number combination that has nothing to do with your car preference, kids' names, or favorite Beatle.

Read the Fine Print. This is the part that merchants hope you don't read, so they can slip in a fast one and sell your e-mail address with your "consent." Most reputable companies will post their privacy policy in an easy-to-read place on the site. If they don't, you could experience trouble--sort of like when a merchant "hides" a customer service contact or a phone number.

What to look for: Assurances that the merchant will not sell your address to an e-mail broker (although you can never be sure). Also, sites displaying the Truste symbol are at least committed to providing a reasonable level of protection.

Act Responsibly. Your online and offline behavior should be generally the same. If you're in the habit of leaving your car keys and credit card on the counter after you leave the store, well, you might not be likely to protect your personal information online, either. Otherwise, verify every scrap of information and trust your common sense.

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