'Tis the season to be buying... but be careful

With the holiday season rapidly approaching, we were talking in class the other day about buying on the Internet and one of the students said "never."

I thought to myself this was too bad because this person was cutting himself off from an experience that millions of people will be enjoying this holiday season. In fact it is estimated that consumers will spend $30 billion dollars in cyberspace this year, up from about $4 billion last year.

So, is this person correct? Of course the answer is that it pays to be cautious. Internet commerce almost exclusively is by credit card. And all of us have some concern when we give someone our credit card information.

Many people are reluctant to give their credit card number to someone in cyberspace because of the perception that it goes "off into the air" and they lose control of it. Who's on the other end, how are they going to use this information and are there people at computers in between who can snatch this information? These all are reasonable concerns. But really what is the risk?

How often do we go into a restaurant or store and physically hand over our credit card to someone who then takes the card and is gone for many minutes? Then they come back and give us paper receipts with our name and credit card number imprinted. When they were gone did they or someone else copy our name and credit card number or, worse yet, did someone quickly call and make a purchase with our card? We won't know until we get our credit card statement.

How many of us bring home our restaurant or store receipts and then put them in the trash? What do we do with our statements after we have paid our bills?

All of these scenarios pose a risk but there are ways to help reduce this risk.

In cyberspace there are two very important things which reduce this risk considerably. One is real and the other is "feel good" but both work.

First, there is no doubt that the credit card issuing companies have made e-commerce viable. They have done this by having consumer friendly fraud policies.

I spoke with a customer service representative from CitiBank the other day about Internet fraud. She told me a number of things which made me feel much better.

First, she said that in their experience there are hardly any instances of misuse of credit card information by e-commerce merchants. In fact, she said, most cases of fraud are those against the merchant and not the consumer.

And secondly, and most importantly, if fraudulent use is discovered, the consumer is liable for at most $50. If a consumer finds an improper charge to their credit card they simply can notify the card issuer and have it removed. If the improper charge is over $300, a form is required which is forwarded to the issuer's security department for disposition. Actually, this is the same policy for any credit card purchase.

Next, e-commerce merchants are making use of electronic technology called "secure servers." When you go to purchase something on the Internet, at some point you are asked if you want to use a secure server. When you answer yes, all subsequent information you give is encrypted so that no one between your computer and the merchant's can see this data.

This is sort of a "feel good" system because the chances of anyone intercepting your information is small to non-existent.

But there is fraud on the Internet. According to CitiBank the most prevalent form they see is with "adult" web sites where someone uses your card number to sign up and the site owner then sells your credit card information to other adult sites. This happened to me recently and after speaking with the CitiBank representative we concluded that my card number was stolen from my trash. They removed the charges.

Subsequently I bought a paper shredder and now shred all credit card receipts and any statements after payment which have my name or credit card information on them.

Another word of caution is when you purchase goods from the new "auction" sites. Here, in most cases, the transaction is between you and the person auctioning the goods. There have been a number of cases where people have sent checks and not received the merchandise. These are hard to resolve.

Some sites, like, allow the use of credit cards at an additional charge to the seller, so you are protected. Some auction sites even have guarantees of up to $1000 per transaction. Just be careful. However, in perspective, of the millions of goods sold by auction, very few have posed a problem.

Personally, I just bought a computer over the Internet and paid for it by credit card. I had no hesitation what so ever because, hopefully, I used common sense. I initiated the transaction from my computer and knew the company by reputation. The computer showed up in about four days and I was a happy camper.

I plan to make e-commerce purchases this holiday season. I find the experience easy, convenient, non-threatening and safe.

 Enjoy the holidays and enjoy cyberspace.

Sites of the week: If you are interested or concerned about Internet fraud the web site has a wealth of information. I was watching a television program where a California Department of Corporations attorney said he routinely checked this site to see the latest Internet scams. I guess that's a good recommendation.

With the holiday season upon us don't forget to visit the web sites that have free "electronic greeting cards." Both and have them but if you want more, go to a search engine like and search for "electronic greeting cards." I just got 29,870 hits there.

_____________________________________________________________________________ Dr. Art Holub is a long time resident of Tustin and teaches computer and Internet courses at the Tustin Area Senior Center and the Tustin Adult School. Visit his web site at: This column is written to address the computer adventures and concerns of older adults. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for future columns, Email HIM at:

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