In the early days of the Internet, some writers predicted that it would bring about a "frictionless economy" – one where shopping for, buying, and even delivering purchases, would happen entirely online. In the years since, the successes of online businesses from eBay to Amazon have made a lot of this image a reality, but online commerce is far from frictionless: scams, frauds, excessive spending and shoddy or misrepresented goods all lie in wait for the unwary buyer.
With these issues in mind, MediaSmarts has partnered with the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) to develop the Online Commerce Cyber Security Consumer Tip Sheet – the fourth in a series of tip sheets on cyber security issues.
There are many reasons why online commerce has become so popular. To begin with, it's convenient. Not only can you shop from home and have it delivered to you, you also have an electronic record of purchases, payments and deliveries. As well, there are a lot of different ways to pay: credit cards (including disposable or low-limit cards), online payment services, gift cards, site credits, and so on, many of which allow us to control how much of our financial information we are sharing and how much money we can spend at a time. It also has built-in safety tools: many sites are equipped with features such as icons and alerts that help us to protect ourselves from being scammed. If you use them, you make it much easier to keep your shopping safe. Finally, it's easy to do research before you buy by finding customer reviews on products, services, and even individual vendors/buyers online.
However, online commerce also has its risks. It can be too convenient, making it easy to get carried away with the sheer variety of things available online. Scam artists also offer deals that are too good to be true, selling goods that are counterfeit, damaged, stolen or simply nonexistent. Well-known auction sites and marketplaces such as eBay or Etsy may be reputable (though you should always check to make sure you're at the correct Web address), but it doesn’t mean the vendors or buyers always are. User information is also sometimes archived by vendors. While this is said to be for convenience purposes (usually to make “one click shopping”) it's risky to store personal and financial information online, and several online businesses have had their customer information hacked and stolen.
Luckily, the Online Commerce Cyber Security Consumer Tip Sheet has information on a number of tools and strategies that can help keep online shopping safe and trouble-free.
These tips include:
- Using a credit card rather than debit or another direct payment option (credit cards typically have robust protections against identity theft: it's usually easy to cancel charges for purchases you didn't make, and credit card companies keep a watch for suspicious activity on your card) or disposable prepaid credit or gift cards (available in most grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations) which have the added benefit of being completely anonymous. Some sites, such as iTunes, also offer site credits; this is a good way of allowing kids to buy from these sites without giving them access to a credit card.
- Making sure your data is encrypted (your Web browser will let you know if you are shopping on an encrypted site: the closed padlock icon or the prefix “https:” are intended to let you know that your transaction is secure).
- Keeping your software up to date and your computer secure with security software that keeps your computer free of malware; logging out of your online accounts so that subsequent users don’t have access to your accounts, purchase information, and payment methods.
- Getting informed before buying from a website or doing business with another user (marketplace sites typically have user ratings and you can do a Web search for reviews of products and services before buying them).
- Reporting any fraud you come across
Thanks to the Internet, we now have access to an online marketplace of staggering proportions. The Online Commerce Cyber Security Consumer Tip Sheet makes it easier for us to take a close look at anything we buy – and keep a close watch on our wallets.