The Internet has become a global marketplace for goods and services. For e-commerce to prosper, you have to feel safe transmitting credit card and other financial information. But data traveling over a network presents an opportunity for someone to intercept this confidential information. How might this affect you?
Let's say you want to buy merchandise from an online store. If you provide your credit card number, how do you know it will travel safely from your computer to its final destination? With the tremendous potential for doing business online, there's a lot of time and money being spent trying to make data protection secure.
How It Works
Sensitive data is protected by a technology called encryption. Encryption software scrambles the data with a secret code so that no one can make sense of it while it's being transmitted. When the data reaches its destination, the same software unscrambles the information. When you see a small lock icon at the bottom of your web browser or next to the address bar, it indicates that your data is encrypted during transmission.
Hackers thrive on outsmarting computer security systems. Some regard breaking into computers as a harmless hobby, but others want to steal data for illegal purposes. Should you worry about this? If you access the Internet through a dial-up account, the chances of someone hacking your computer are slim. If you use a broadband or wireless Internet connection, your chances increase greatly.
The real targets of most hackers, however, are corporate and government computers systems. They protect their systems by erecting firewalls, an extra layer of software security placed between their internal computers and the Internet. These days, almost all personal computers also use firewalls. For instance, Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7 and Mac operating systems have built-in firewalls. If your computer doesn't have one, install one immediately. You can download ZoneAlarm for free.
When dealing with online merchants, the best security is common sense. Anyone can establish a professional looking online store these days, so make sure you deal with reputable companies. How can you tell? The answers to these questions provide clues:
Is this the website of an established retailer?
Does the site list a street address, not just a post office box?
Is there a way to call customer service?
Is a return and refund policy posted?
Does the merchant belong to organizations such as the Better Business Bureau Online and Truste?
All online financial transactions should be secure. Many online stores have what's known as a secure check-out page. You may see a notice to that effect posted on the site. Alternately, you may see a lock icon on your web browser, indicating that the site uses security technology. Also, check the address of the web page in the address bar of your browser; it should begin with https. The letter "s" indicates that the page is secure.
If you are uncomfortable transmitting sensitive information, many sites provide a phone number you can call to give your credit card number, although there is no guarantee that's secure either. According to the National Consumers League, most Internet fraud involves sending checks or money orders to merchants. The organization recommends paying by credit card, because fraudulent charges can be disputed with your bank.
The risks involved in transacting business on the Internet are no greater than those in any other arena in which we do business. While it is relatively safe to conduct business online, many companies are working to improve the technology required to make the Web more secure.