Even if you haven’t experienced it, you’ve undoubtedly read about it. Shopping on the Internet-whether as a consumer or as a business-is exploding in popularity.Various studies indicate that from one-quarter to one-half of all Americans have now placed at least one order online. Some analysts believe that eventually e-commerce will account for one-fifth of all retail sales (the figure today is between 1 to 5%, depending on who’s doing the counting). The numbers for business-to-business e-commerce are even higher.There’s no better way to locate hard-to-find items or to comparison-shop for the best deals. I’ve shopped for cars and plane tickets on the Web, and recently I bought boogie boards for my kids, videos for my wife, and specialty bath mats and pillow wedges for the house (all items I couldn’t find in local stores) at excellent prices.It’s seems that e-commerce is having a society-wide impact, helping to fuel the economy’s decade-long expansion, the longest since records were first kept 150 years ago. Could this be a perfect new marketplace?Buyer Beware
Well, to almost every upside there’s a downside. With e-commerce, you need to beware of scams and foul-ups as businesses and entrepreneurs eager to cash in on the “Internet gold rush” do so ill-prepared or with venal motives.The incidence of outright fraud appears to be low, with exceptions in the areas of pyramid schemes, and to a lesser extent, online auctions. More common problems are featured products being unavailable, late deliveries, high shipping charges, and orders never arriving.The key issue is trust. If you’re buying, how can you trust Web merchants? As often happens with Web problems, the Web offers solutions as well.Backgrounder Sites
A number of Web sites track fraudulent Web businesses or otherwise help you avoid becoming a victim. Examples are the National Fraud Information Center at http://www.fraud.org, BBBOnLine at http://www.bbbonline.org, and WebAssured.com at http://www.webassured.com.Other sites review shopping sites for qualities such as ease-of-use, pricing, selection, and service, including Gomez Advisors at http://www.gomez.com, BizRate.com at http://www.bizrate.com, and Rating Wonders at http://www.ratingwonders.com.Some sites provide product reviews, such as ConsumerSearch at http://www.consumersearch.com and Productopia at http://www.productopia.com. Then there are shopping discussion sites, such as Deja.com at http://www.deja.com and Epinions.com at http://www.epinions.com, where consumers share their buying experiences.Safe to Use Your Credit Card?
Most online shopping at the consumer level is done with credit cards, which is safer than mailing a check because credit-card companies typically limit your liability to $50 in the event of fraud. Almost all Web fraud victims are those who shop without credit cards.But should you worry that your credit-card information might be heisted as it travels through cyberspace?No. More and more Web shopping sites use encryption to scramble the credit-card data you type in, preventing hackers from intercepting it. You’ll know encryption is being used if the address of the Web page begins with “https” instead of “http” (the extra “s” stands for “secure”).What About Personal Info?
We’re hearing more and more about how Web sites sell personal information about their customers’ buying habits. Should you be concerned?Possibly. Look for a clear privacy statement from a Web site before offering personal information. Organizations such as TrustE at http://www.truste.com certify the privacy policies of Web sites and provide seals that you can click on to take you directly to a site’s privacy statement.Some comments to merchants: Web sites can engender trust by being forthright and by understanding Internet conventions. If you have a storefront, post its address along with a telephone number for those who want more than a virtual connection or assurance that you’re no fly-by-night operation. Make sure your site loads quickly, is easy to navigate, and has a search feature. Don’t send e-mail to Web visitors without asking permission. Respond to all e-mail questions. Let visitors know what information you’re collecting and how it will be used. Clearly state your return policy.Good Ol’ Common Sense
Unfortunately, Web safeguards aren’t foolproof. A new, fraudulent Web site may not have yet registered on the radar screens of consumer watchdog sites. Shopping review sites seem eager to give sites good marks and reluctant to reveal poorly performing sites. Shopping discussion sites by definition report anecdotal information that may be useful, or misleading. A number of sites have been accused of violating their own privacy policies.As with nearly everything else about the Internet, online shopping isn’t risk-free. But this shouldn’t stop you from benefiting from it.Just remember to keep your eyes open. And sometimes you have to rely on old-fashioned common sense: If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.