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Internet Can Aid Christmas Shopping
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Once upon a time, people could get away with excuses like not having enough time to shop or too many people at stores, but the Internet has removed those excuses.
Consumer use of the Internet has gone way beyond sending virtual postcards and buying computer parts. With few exceptions, any service or product available in stores or by mail order can now be purchased in cyberspace.
Dr. Beverly Howell, Mississippi State University extension family economics specialist, said the Internet offers a degree of Christmas shopping convenience not found anywhere else.
"The Internet is available 24 hours a day," Howell said. "It can be more convenient and offers a wide range of choices."
The same laws that protect a person shopping by phone or mail order protect the Internet shopper, Howell said.
When purchasing over the Internet, security is the first consideration. This starts with the Internet connection. On a secure browser, transmitted information cannot be intercepted.
Mike Allen, program assistant with the extension Center for Governmental Technology, developed and manages the department's web site.
"You have to have a secure browser and access to a secure server to safely do business on the Internet," Allen said.
Safe browsers, the software that provides Internet access, include Netscape Navigator version 2.x and above and Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.x and above. These encrypt transmissions from the user's computer so they cannot be read if intercepted.
But the transmission is still not secure unless the web site a consumer is accessing is on a secure server.
Using Netscape, a secure site displays an intact blue key or a locked padlock in the bottom left corner of the browser. If either icon is present, the transaction is secure. If the key is broken or the padlock unlocked, the transaction is not secure.
In Explorer, a locked padlock icon in the bottom right-hand position indicates a secure link. If this icon is not present, the transaction is not secure. In all cases, be sure the secure icon is displayed by the browser, not the web page.
"Only send personal information such as credit card or bank account numbers if the transaction is secure," Allen said. "Some experts say secure Internet transactions are safer than giving information over the phone because secure Internet transactions are encrypted, and phone lines are not."
Many new browsers display additional security information on command. When available, passwords offer a further security measure and should be changed every few months.
"A good password is easy for you to remember, difficult for anyone else to guess and not a real word," Allen said. "It should contain capital and lowercase letters, numbers and even keyboard symbols if possible."
Once a secure Internet link has been established, consumers should still be cautious about the information they release.
"It's rarely necessary to supply personal information, such as your Social Security number, to conduct a transaction," Howell said. "Transactions that require such information should raise a red flag with consumers."
When placing orders, type carefully. An extra character can change an order for one item to an order for 10, Howell said.
"Once an order has been placed, print a copy of the order and confirmation number for your records," Howell said. Also, record the company's Internet address and the terms and conditions of the purchase.
"Deal only with reliable firms and if you're in doubt, check with your local consumer protection agency or the Better Business Bureau nearest to where the business is located," Howell said.
Make Internet purchases with credit cards, checks or money orders, never cash, as these give a record of the transaction.