ybershoppers, start your modems. With falling computer prices, it's easy to imagine a whole passel of new buyers eager to say "I'll take it!" on-line. In fact, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) in New York, estimates that Internet sales will total $11 billion this year, up from $5.9 billion in 1998.

Although it's wonderful to have all that merchandise at your fingers night and day, is it safe? Are cyberconsumers protected?

"You're covered by the same protections you'd have if shopping by mail or phone," says Amy Blankenship, director of DMA's Shop-At-Home Center. The Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule requires companies to deliver the goods within 30 days unless otherwise noted, or offer you the option to cancel. But just as when you shop by mail or phone, know with whom you're dealing.

A national Louis Harris poll recently conducted for the National Consumers League in Washington, D.C., reports that the majority of on-line users are not comfortable providing credit card (73%), other financial (73%), or personal (70%) information to businesses on-line. Is that fear justified?

"Overall, customer satisfaction among consumers who shop on-line is quite good," says James L. Blast, president of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. "We've never received a report of anyone's credit card number being stolen while doing business with a legitimate company," adds Holly Anderson of the National Consumers League.

The survey also reported that 42% of those accessing the Internet do so to research purchases, while only 24% go on-line to actually make purchases. Several Web sites offer consumers information comparing features and accessing product ratings.
     Product ratings
     & comparisons


Protect your wallet
Because people fear what they don't know, the keys to safe cybershopping are caution and care.
  • Use a secure browser. This is the software you use to navigate the Net. It should comply with industry security standards, such as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Secure Electronic Transaction (SET). According to the FTC, these standards scramble the purchase information you send over the Internet. When you move from the shopping pages to the buying screen you easily can tell if you're part of a secure site: A window may pop up telling you that you're entering a secure area, you may see a padlock or key in the locked position on the bottom left of the screen, and a glance at the URL (Web site address box) will show that the "http" has changed to "https." The "s" stands for secure. "If it's not a secure site, surf on by," says Blankenship.

  • Deal with someone you know, especially if you're new to cybershopping. "Eighty-four percent of catalogs now have a Web site," says Blankenship. Start with the familiar until you're comfortable with the process. Print out pages listing the company's address and phone number to contact if there is a problem. Print a copy of your order and confirmation number information.

  • Check return policies and customer service information. Blankenship says some companies may place time limits on returns, or have special policies for opened compact disks and software. It's here that you'll also find information about sizing charts, how to get fabric swatches, and payment and delivery options.

  • Always pay by credit card. This way your transaction will be protected under the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), which gives you the right to dispute charges and temporarily withhold payment. If someone used your card without authorization, you won't be held liable for more than the first $50 in charges. Also, some cards may provide additional warranty or purchase protection benefits.

    However, be aware that there may be limitations on your claims and defenses rights under the FCBA and state law.

    The FCBA requires that the sale be made in the same state as the cardholder's mailing address or within 100 miles of that address. On the other hand, the FCBA also provides that state law dictates the location of the transaction. For example, if you are a California resident and use your telephone to order a product from an out-of-state retailer, under California law that sale took place at your home. It's likely that Internet transactions have or will have the same status in California. These types of jurisdictional issues are rapidly evolving and can either help or hurt the on-line shopper.

Protect your privacy
Technology now provides companies with the ability to collect information about you and potentially give or sell that information to others. Safeguard your privacy on-line by following these tips from the FTC:
  • Keep personal information private. Don't disclose information such as your address, phone number, Social Security number, or e-mail address unless you know who's collecting the information, why they're collecting it, and how they'll use it.

  • Look for a company's on-line privacy policy. Most companies post their privacy policy on the Web site, including information about what information the company collects and how it will use it.

  • Make choices. Many companies give you a choice on the Web site as to whether and how your personal information is used. These companies allow you to decline, or "opt-out" of, having personal information used or shared with other companies.
     The keys to safe
     cybershopping are
     caution and care.

Don't disclose
information unless
you know who's
collecting it,
why, and how
they'll use it.
Private sales and on-line auctions
Four years ago, Amelia Boss' 14-year-old son Ted used the Internet to sell some trading cards. When he got a high bid from a dealer in Florida, he thought he covered his bases by sending the cards c.o.d. but all he got for his efforts was a bounced check and months of trouble.

When Boss tried to collect the money, the dealer started all kinds of legal squirming, saying nothing was in writing, there was no contract, and that they couldn't even prove it was him. Luckily for Ted, his mom is an "Internet expert" and a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. When Boss doggedly pursued him, the dealer finally paid. The experience has shown her that "people like this can easily dupe consumers, and it's easy to rip people off for small amounts, because of the costs to recover any money."

Boss is concerned for people on either side of a private sale: Sellers need to make sure they get paid for their merchandise. In this case, c.o.d. means "collect on delivery," not "cash on delivery," so specifically ask that the post office require a guaranteed method of payment, such as a certified check, before handing over the goods.

Buyers need to know with whom they're dealing, what they're getting, and what recourse they have if they want to return something. (Click here for more information on private sales and on-line auctions.)

Product ratings & comparisons
Here's just a sample of the related Web sites provided by mySimon.com:

Compare Net

Bargain Price Reference List

Consumer Reports On-line

Consumer Review


Product Review Net


For a more complete list, click here.

Part of the public's concern about shopping on-line involves cookies. What are they and why do some consumers fear them?

Cookies are short pieces of data, stored on your computer, that Web servers use to help identify Web users, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Cookies only identify a Web user, although they may track a user's browsing habits.

For example, an Internet shopping site uses a cookie to keep track of which shopping basket belongs to you. You can set your browser not to accept cookies, but it won't make you anonymous. Cookies can't do anything to your computer, and a server can't find out your name or e-mail address, or anything about your personal computer, by using cookies. For more information, click here.

©1999 Credit Union National Association Inc.