How to protect yourself from online predators

How to protect yourself from online predators

by Nick McLain

With the holiday shopping season ramping up and more consumers making purchases online, Chicago-area retailers say they're taking precautions to protect their customers from identity theft.

Jackie Koglin, owner of highly rated Ask It In A Basket Inc., a gourmet gift basket business in Park Ridge, says she subscribes to an online security service that encrypts customer's payment information. Online orders account for about 80 percent of her sales.

"We've been pretty lucky so far in our 20 years in business," Koglin says, adding that none of her customers have been victims of identity theft as a result of patronizing her store.

Shoppers looking for gifts of handcrafted jewelry at Anna Sourile's highly rated Artibility store in Algonquin should be prepared to use PayPal when making online purchases, which account for 90 percent of sales.

"Customer payment information is never seen by us," she says. "By using PayPal, my customers can pay with checking, debit or credit card without us ever having to see, process or maintain their records."

Bill Weingarten, owner of highly rated Hometech Computer Solutions in Chicago, advises consumers to look for seals of approval from TRUSTe, VeriSign or BBBOnLine if shopping at a company's website.

When submitting payment information, he says, the web address should start with "https" instead of "http," which means it's a secure site, and a key or lock should be displayed in the bottom corner.

"If you don't know the company, look to see if it is physically located in the U.S.," says Weingarten, whose company provides online security help to individuals and small businesses. "If it is, there are consumer protection laws, both state and federal, that can help."

Weingarten also suggests using a credit card, PayPal or Google checkout when placing an order, and avoid using a debit card or providing bank routing/account numbers. "If you do, you'll open up your entire account to fraud," he says. "Debit cards aren't protected like credit cards."

When it's too late

Angie's List member Karen Korab of Schiller Park learned that lesson the hard way. In January 2005, Korab received a letter from a company thanking her for an order for iPod accessories. "I've never owned an iPod in my life," she says.

She later learned a woman in South Carolina had obtained her debit card number and used it to empty her account of nearly $1,000. By working with her credit union and the companies where the orders were placed, Korab was able to get all of her money back.

She went a step further and gave South Carolina authorities information to arrest the woman, she says. "A lot of people would have said, 'Well, I got my money back' and left it at that," Korab says. "But unless people stand up for themselves, this kind of thing is going to continue to grow."

If you fall victim to identity theft, Efrat Stein, public information director for Chicago's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, recommends closing compromised accounts. In addition, file a police report and get a copy of it. "It will help in your dealings with creditors," she says.


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