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Protecting Your Finances on the Internet


In the Author's Corner: Stacie Zoe Berg

Protecting Your Finances on the Internet

This is excerpted from Stacie's book, The Unofficial Guide to Managing Your Personal Finances. Stacie is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Consumer Reports, and other publications.

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Anyone can set up shop on the Internet. And while that may benefit you in terms of more competitive pricing, better banking terms, and other advantages, it can also pose danger to your finances. After all, how do you know who's behind the screen? Is it a real businessperson or scam?

"Just because a web site looks professional, doesn't mean that professionals are running it," says Erwin Rydell (Erydell@aol.com), a computer information security consultant "There are many people who are very good at setting up web pages, but not all of them have good intentions."

So, before reaching for your credit card, do your homework. Make sure the e-mail address contains the site's domain name. Make sure the company's listed in the yellow pages at www.switchboard.com, www.four11.com, or similar site. Call them up and ask them to send written documentation by snail mail (regular postal service). When it arrives, check the postmark and make sure it's coming from the city the company claims to be located in. Even if the material looks professional, keep in mind that anyone with a color printer or enough money to go to Kinko's can produce professional-looking letterhead and brochures. Check with the Better Business Bureau or the county's consumer affairs office to be on the safe side.

Some sites that are not legitimate have obvious red flags. Ask yourself the following: Does the site have spelling errors? A lot of exclamation points? A lot of capital letters? Does the site make hard-to-believe claims such as promising a six-figure income for stuffing envelopes or the words "no risk"? If so, move on.

Before you give out any personal information, make sure you're in a secured socket layer (SSL) session. You'll see a locked padlock or a whole key (as opposed to a broken key) in the corner of your screen. You will also receive a message stating that you're entering an encrypted session. In a SSL session, the information you provide is encrypted - scrambled - so no one can read it as it hops from computer to computer before reaching the authorized end user.

Another way to determine if the web site is secure is to look for the International Computer Security Association (ICSA) (www.icsa.net) seal. The ICSA provides participating web sites with guidelines, a remote test (a vulnerability analysis), an on-site inspection, and two random spot checks.

In addition to making sure that you're entering an encrypted session, make sure you have the ability to cancel the transaction and that there's a privacy statement disclosing how the information will be used and how the site is secured before providing sensitive information to the site.

Although these tips don't assure protection, they reduce your risk.

"Generally, it's safe to buy and do banking business over the Internet, if you're at an authentic site," Rydell says.

Stacie Zoe Berg, author of The Unofficial Guide to Managing Your Personal Finances and The Unofficial Guide to Investing in Mutual Funds, is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Consumer Reports, and other publications.

Ms. Berg is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and Washington Independent Writers. Over the years she has been associated with other professional organizations, including Women in Communications, for which she is a former board member and newsletter assistant editor, and Women in Museums (sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution). Ms. Berg also is an award-winning Toastmaster.

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