When e-commerce first started in the mid ’90s, one of the main questions people asked was, “Why will people buy anything online? Aren’t they afraid their information will get stolen?” Those were good questions back then, before encrypted security protected both consumers and sellers. After all, sellers need to be paid for their items too.
But in the last two decades, much has changed. Most major websites, such as Amazon and eBay, use SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) to encrypt credit card information and billing addresses before transmitting them across the Web. But these websites don’t sell everything. How do you ensure your transaction is secure on smaller, lesser-known sites?
- Check security. “You want to go to a secure website,” says cyber-security expert Dan Clements. There are two ways to check if a website is secure. First, you can check the Web page URL. A regular website begins with “http,” but when you move over to the transaction part of the site, it should begin with “https.” Second, there’s a lock symbol on the site to show you the site is secure.
- Go direct. Do not click on links you receive in emails. Many scammers copy and paste other companies’ logos into spam emails so the emails look like they’re from your bank or another company you trust. Type the Web address directly into your browser.
- Pay smart. You can pay through your credit card or through PayPal. Avoid using Western Union, which many scammers use for moving money around the world, says Clements. For large purchases, many people are paying by escrow -- using a third party when the buyer and seller don’t know each other. Sites like Escrow.com deal with purchases of antiques, motorcycles, jewelry and other high-ticket items.
- Know your limits. Some people designate special credit cards for online purchases. Others cap their credit limit to avoid exorbitant fraudulent charges. “You don’t want to use a debit card online because you have fewer rights than a credit card,” says Clements. Banks and credit card companies will reimburse you for fraudulent charges on a card, but you should constantly monitor your credit card charges. “Speed is the ally of the bad guys,” says Clements.
- Check again. Even if you have caught false charges on your card, make sure you know exactly what the charges are for. Clements says there’s a new type of fraud in which scammers will order credit reports in your name from companies like Experian and then obtain access to all of your accounts. In other words, the fraudulent charge might signal more charges to come.
- Do your research. “The Internet’s a powerful tool: Google it, go to Yelp -- there are lots of ways to find out the person is who they say they are, and the goods are what they say they are,” says Clements. Sites such as TripAdvisor or Airbnb can help you vet services such as vacation rentals, which are a popular target of scammers, who simply copy existing Craigslist ads and offer them at a much lower price.
- If it sounds too good to be true … then it probably is. That antique car part you couldn’t find anywhere for less than $1,000 isn’t suddenly going to be offered for $100. We all want to find a good bargain, and that’s exactly the psychology that online predators play upon. On the other hand, we have all heard the story about someone finding an art masterpiece at a garage sale.
- When in doubt, call. For smaller websites, or even individuals who are selling items directly on Craigslist or eBay (which rates buyers and sellers, making it more difficult to scam), if you’re really nervous, make direct contact through email or even the telephone. Maybe then you’ll find that what sounded suspicious is a little old lady who really does want to get rid of that old painting in her attic from her great-great-grandfather, Renoir.
Amy Klein Amy Klein is a journalist based in New York City. She writes about health, science and technology for newspapers, websites and magazines. She was an early adopter of the Internet, with an e-commerce site in 1994.