Smart shopping can keep you safe online

Helpdesk No. 2

Q: I just read your article about the Westinghouse LED television that is not working after only 15 months. Very few of us pay cash for this type of purchase. You should have suggested they check with their credit card company. Most now extend warranties by at least another year. I hope this helps.

Carm Kirkeby

A: It’s excellent advice, Carm. I have mentioned it before but it would have been smart for me to mention it again while answering that question. I tell my editors that I learn more from readers than they do from me. It’s absolutely true – although I hope the editors think I’m just being modest.

Q: In one of your recent articles, you mentioned getting a good book on computing. Would you please recommend one.

Ray Thomas

A: I don’t remember writing about computer books. But, heck, there are a lot of things I don’t remember. In any case I’ve always liked the series of books that have the word “dummies” in the title. While I’m not wild about calling folks dummies, the books themselves are usually excellent.

Q: A number of months ago I began to receive a message every time I start up the computer from Outlook Express that states: “To free up disk space, Outlook Express can compact messages. This may take up to a few minutes.” I am given the choice of choosing OK or Cancel. I always choose Cancel. I have plenty of space available. I have asked some others who were no help. I am afraid of deleting Outlook Express for fear that something bad might happen. Hopefully you have some sage words of wisdom. Thanks.

Norbert Braza

A: It’s perfectly safe to take Outlook up on the offer. Doing that lets it optimize the space it uses for storing emails. However, you were smart to ask. When confronted with an option you don’t understand, it’s smart to check out the consequences in advance, just as you did.

Those who know me well may be amused to see that I’m writing about shopping. And I understand why. I develop an annoying twitch at the thought of going to a mall.

But online shopping is different. I do fine with that. In fact, I do so fine that my wife occasionally feels it necessary to hide my credit cards. After a successful holiday shopping season, I feel moved to offer some year-round online shopping advice. It can save you a few bucks or, if it keeps you out of the hands of some online crook, it can save your neck.

Don’t be impulsive

The best thing about online shopping is the same as the worst thing. It’s blazing fast compared to driving around town to shop. But the speed of online shopping encourages impulse buying. You might start your online shopping expedition looking for a new coffee pot. But, in the process, you happen on a page describing the wonders of pressure cookers. It’s so easy to click your mouse and add that item to your order. Unless money is irrelevant stick to your original mission.

Assumptions are dangerous

It’s smart – especially with high priced items – to check with local stores. While online stores often offer great bargains, there are times when buying from a local merchant offers the best deal. So, once you’ve found the best price online, spend a few extra minutes on the telephone checking with local stores. Not only can you find some bargains that way, you’ll be able to get your hands on the item you want almost instantly. Be sure, when comparing prices, to add in taxes and shipping cost – you want to know the final amount you’ll pay from either the online store or brick and mortar store downtown.

How you pay matters

Using a credit card – which you’d probably do anyway – offers online shoppers extra protection if something goes wrong. And some credit cards automatically extend an item’s warranty by an extra year. So check the terms for all your credit cards and use the one that does the best job protecting you and saving you money.

Stick with well-known sites

There are fake websites that offer unbelievable prices to lure you into their trap. They stay online long enough to make a number of “sales” then will fold their tents and disappear with your money. Obviously there also are some terrific small shops out there too. But, at the very least, spend some time making sure that new site is real. Here are so things to check – make sure it has a real street address listed rather than just an email address. Consider contacting the Better Business Bureau in the city where the site is headquartered to check its credentials. Also use Google to see if there are postings – good or bad – about the business. Even after all that, think twice before venturing into unknown waters.

The wonders of technology aren’t always wonderful

Do you know that online sites sometimes use a technology called dynamic pricing? That means the same online store, on the same day, may charge you a different price than what other shoppers pay. Today’s technology – including cookies that contain information about your habits – give sites the tools to do it and some merchants – including well-known ones – have used that data to charge different customers, different amounts. You can read about all this in more detail here:

The world’s most expensive coffee

Where you sit does matter. So avoid public sitting and shopping in public wifi spots including coffee shops. There are just too many security flaws in wifi networks to make that a smart move. So enjoy your coffee then go home to your own computer to place the order.

Keep it clean out there

If your own computer is infected with spyware, then a hacker can easily harvest your credit card information, banking data, or just about anything else. So it’s absolutely essential that you use a program (or separate programs) to check for viruses and spyware. It is almost certain, if you use an unprotected computer long enough, that you’ll be hacked.

When will your ship come in?

With online orders it’s always possible for a shipment to be delayed. It doesn’t happen often but will be times when the merchant won’t meet the promised delivery date. You can’t do much about that. But when you absolutely need to have the item on hand on some specific date, check with the online merchant to be sure that the item is in stock. I’ve seen cases where a product showed as in stock but it really wasn’t. Email or otherwise contact the merchant and ask specifically if it’s in stock when it’s important that you receive the item on a given date.

Don’t get me wrong

I enjoy online shopping. And it’s safe as long as you take the sort of sensible precautions that I’ve mentioned today. So don’t let me spoil the fun. Just be safe out there.