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10. Online shopping? Let common sense be your guide

By Mark Alberstat

WITH LOCKS on your doors and latches on your windows, you may feel safe at home. However, in today's wired world you can travel the globe and be exposed and vulnerable.

One of the most often-asked computer-related security questions is about online shopping and how secure it is, or isn't.

Online transactions can be risky but some common-sense computing practices can minimize danger.

Always protect your password. When creating it for a Web site, whether financial or not, try to be original.

Use a combination of number and letters and do not use your home phone number, date of birth, children's names or anything that could help a thief identify you.

These types of passwords may be easier to remember but are also easier for a potential thief to figure.

It is also good practice to change your password occasionally. Some security experts say once a month but few people would change passwords that often.

When you are doing online financial transactions, make sure the encryption is 128-bit. This is the current standard in online encryption. A site using anything lower than this should not be trusted.

The 128-bit encryption scrambles the information before it is sent across the Internet. Once scrambled, the information is sent and only the recipient has the key to unscramble it.

The key that scrambles the information changes after each request. If you are on a banking site and request an account balance, receive the information and then make another request, the second request uses a completely different key than the first.

When you're giving your card details over the Web, look for a small closed padlock or key symbol, usually at the bottom of the screen. If you see this, it means your details are being encoded and travelling safely down the wire. If you don't see it, don't give your card details.

The lock or key symbol means the Web site is using SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), a coding method, developed by Netscape, that is extremely hard to crack; not impossible, but certainly difficult. If you are not sure what level of security your browser is at, the information is usually stored under the Help Menu or in the Preferences.

Most online banking sites will not allow you to log on without 128-bit security, so if you are continually denied at a site, your encryption level could be the problem.

Most sites doing online transactions will also generate a number or receipt, record or print this receipt each time for your own security.

If anything happens, that number will help the authorities trace what may have gone wrong and where.

Auction fraud is another online security trap that many people fall victim to. The largest online auction house is, of course, eBay.

Today, many of the purchases on eBay are done through third-party companies such as PayPal (which is owned by eBay).

For these transactions to work, the buyer and seller must have a PayPal (or similar company) account. The person who has won the auction logs into PayPal and pays the person who had the item up for auction.

The person who posted the auction never sees the other party's financial information. The only person in the loop with this information is PayPal, which prides itself on its security and diligence.

Like any type of shopping, online transactions have, at their core, the old adage of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). With good password protection and creation routines, and 128-bit encryption, you can lessen your chance of being a victim online.

The Mousepad runs every second week. It is a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, e-mail us at


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Originally published 8 June 2003


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