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That neat something catches your eye as you're Web-surfing and you know it could be yours with a mouseclick . . . but just how safe is shopping on the Internet? The short answer is: as safe as you make it. For the longer answer, stop by American Express's tip sheet, "Shop Safely Online", a well-crafted five-page primer on buying without getting ripped off.
Boiled down, American Express' counsel is that if we use basic, easy precautions when shopping online, we'll do fine-and the key chunk of advice is to use a credit card. Why? "Your transaction will be protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act," says American Express, adding, "you generally would be held liable only for the first $50 in charges." Then, too, some companies, including America Online and Yahoo!, promise to cover even that $50 if you buy from one of their certified merchants.
Other nuggets of wisdom from American Express: Shop with companies you know; keep a record by printing out a copy of the purchase transaction; use a secure browser, meaning a late-model edition of Netscape or Internet Explorer; and patronize sites that employ Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Secure Electronic Transaction (SET) technologies so your data is scrambled and safe from hackers.
Want more cyber-shopping tips? Head to the Better Business Bureau, which offers both tips and a roster of some 3,300 members with electronic storefronts that abide by the BBB's policies and have committed to work within the BBB's arbitration procedures to resolve consumer complaints.
Add this up and, for you, there's good news and bad. The good news is that by following the rules, you can pretty safely hit the Net for all the goodies you crave for your home office, from computers to paper clips. What's the bad? When you want to sell online, it can be hard to win the consumer's confidence because you're a small operation that fails American Express' first test: "Shop with companies you know." What's the remedy? Work very hard to build credibility-put in a phone number, a mailing address, customer testimonials, and maybe even join your local BBB. Whatever you do, know that in today's cyber Wild West, newcomers have to persuade wary consumers they're legit. It's a job that can be done . . . but it is a job.