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Larry Magid Goes Shopping

Parents shop in the toy aisle at a Target store, Kingston, Massachusetts, May 9, 2007.
AP (file)
There were some great deals to be had on Cyber Monday but if you weren't among the online hordes, take heart and know that you've got plenty of company: most holiday shopping online will be between now and around December 14th.

There are two important issues facing online holiday shoppers. One is to be sure you're getting the best deal and the other is to be sure you're shopping safely.

There are, thankfully, plenty of deals to be had - both on prices and on shipping.

Merchants who rewarded "early birds" with tempting offers during the start of the shopping season will certainly reach out to procrastinators as well. They're not judgmental. They just want your money.

But don't wait too long. Even though I expect to see good prices throughout the season, merchants will run out of hot items and, eventually, will start charging premium shipping fees to get that package to your home in time for the big day.

One way to be sure you hear about good deals, according to Shefinds.com CEO Michelle Madhok, is to sign up for e-mail alert lists. I recommend you use a "disposable" e-mail address such as one from Gmail, Yahoo or MSN but if you only contact legitimate merchants with a strong privacy policy you shouldn't have a spam problem. Madhok said that "retailers are starting to panic that people aren't going to spend as much as they have in the past so are discounting early and often."

If Black Friday is any indication, she may be right about the amount people are spending. The National Retail Federal reported that even though there were seven percent more shoppers in stores then a year ago, spending was down with average shopper shelling out $347.44, down 3 percent from a year ago.

In addition to being on mailing lists, it pays to check with the mega-shopping sites like Shopping.com, Shopzilla.com, Bizrate.com, MSN Shopping and Yahoo Shopping to see what their merchants are offering.

Shopping information sites like Dealnews.com and FatWallet.com can also be very helpful. As is CyberMonday.com, which has links to merchants' sale pages, useful even though Cyber Monday itself is over, and SheFinds.com, which offers help in finding gifts for the women in your life.

Be sure to check your favorite merchants. The big sites such as Amazon.com, Sears.com, Macys.com, Target.com and Walmart.com are frequently putting new merchandise on sale. In most cases, if you buy from a website which also has "brick and mortar" stores, the person who gets your gift can return items directly to a local store rather than having to pack them up and pay to ship them back.

Google doesn't do much to promote its product search but it has a tool at google.com/products that can help you find the best prices. Google doesn't do anything to vet the quality or integrity of the merchants, so be sure to follow the advice later on in this column to make sure you don't get taken.

A lot of people worry about the dangers of shopping online and, while caution is in order, it's important to put things into perspective. As CBS News 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl pointed out in a recent report, your credit card might be at greater risk from hackers if you hand it to a merchant in a store than if you use it on the web.

That's because some brick and mortar stores are not as careful as they should be with their own cyber security. TJX, the parent company of TJMaxx, was responsible for a massive data breach last year because they used outdated WEP encryption on their in-store wireless networks instead of the more secure WPA encryption. And we're taking about physical stores, not the company's website.

I'm not saying you shouldn't shop in regular stores but just to point out that the Internet doesn't have a monopoly when it comes to risk.

Another plus: online shoppers don't have to worry about a fender-benders in the parking lot or having their purses or wallets stolen by shady characters.

Here are a few basic guidelines to assure your online shopping is safe and secure:

1. Use a credit card. Federal law requires credit card companies to suspend charges and investigate in the event you report suspected fraud. If the transaction is found to be fraudulent, you may be on the hook for - at most - $50, but most companies will even waive that.

2. Stick with sites you know and trust or do a little research before giving your credit card to an unknown site. I like to Google the site with the word "scam" after the name. That will usually uncover any dirty laundry, although an accusation or two doesn't necessarily mean that you're dealing with an evil merchant.

Also, look for real street addresses and phone numbers on a site. That's no guarantee they're legit, but it's a start. Also look for certification programs like Truste.org and BBBOnline.org but doublecheck those organization's websites to make sure the e-tailer you are considering patronizing is really part of a certification program.

3. Don't click on links in email. If you get an offer via email that contains a link, it's safer not to click but to type in the site's URL directly into the browser. It's a little more work but it helps eliminate "phishing" scams in which site users are directed to hacker sites instead of the real thing.

4. Know the real deal. Purchase price is only one factor and the lowest price isn't necessarily the best deal. Checking for shipping and handling charges and examine the site's return policy. Make sure it's reasonable in case the people on your list have a reason to return items.

5. Keep records. Print copies of your transaction or copy the final screen into the clipboard and paste it into an email to yourself, or into another document to save for future reference, so you will know who you've dealt with. Most reputable sites will follow up a transaction with an email but it's better to print or save your own records just to be sure.

6. Check the ratings. If you're on an auction site or a megasite that rates merchants, check out the merchant's user ratings. Even if they're honest, they might not be competent so make sure it's a company that will deliver the goods on time.

7. Protect your PC. All the caution in the world won't do you any good if your PC is infected with key logging software that sends your information to a hacker. Make sure your anti-virus and anti-spyware software is up-to-date and be sure your operating system and browser have been patched with all the latest security updates.

8. Watch for deals that are "too good to be true." Be extra careful if you see a price that is drastically below what other sites are charging. Make sure it's new merchandise that carries a full warranty and comes in a sealed box with a manual, power cords or any other required parts. I once found a great deal on a video camera only to discover that it didn't come with a power supply, manual or battery.

9. When checking out, look for a closed padlock in the lower right corner of your browser. That tells you the site has a secure server. Also check to see if the URL changes from HTTP to SHTTP or HTTPS - the S stands for "secure."

10. Protect your passwords. Never give out your password to anyone. Use different passwords with different sites and come up with a secure password that's hard to guess. One tip is to create a phrase with capital letters and numbers that you can remember but no one can guess. If you can remember the phrase "I met Sally in 1991" you could create the password "ImSi1991." Just hope that Sally isn't a hacker.



A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."