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Editorial: Shop safely on the internet

Avoiding the drive, the crowds and the hauling has become popular with holiday shoppers who do their shopping online.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) reminds consumers to use care whenever shopping online, at the holidays or otherwise. Web technology and smartphone usage have revolutionized the way Americans shop, but with those new tools comes new need for caution in transactions, warns the DATCP's division administrator. Cybercriminals will be on the attack and it's important to make sure personal information isn't put into the wrong hands.

When entering personal information into a website to make a purchase, use a secure site. These sites start with "https" rather than "http." Also, have a firewall and anti-virus software in place to protect connections from hackers and identity thieves. While it's safest to shop from a personal computer, if it's necessary to use a public computer, be sure it has encryption software to scramble the purchase information.

The following tips from DATCP are provided to help keep online shopping experiences safe:

--Update the operating system and anti-virus software on personal computers and smartphones. Before even starting a gift search online, make sure the systems are up-to-date with the latest patches and virus definitions installed.

--Know who's being dealt with. ID thieves can create websites imitating and looking like legitimate business sites. Don't trust websites based solely on their appearance. Always type the business' URL into the address bar rather than clicking a link to it. If asked to provide a Social Security number, consider that a red flag of potential identity theft--legitimate merchants almost never require this information. Never give out personally identifiable information unless initiating the contact and confident the business being dealt with is legitimate.

--Avoid unnecessary downloads. Seasonal downloads like ringtones, screensavers and apps are examples. Criminals could use this software to download a virus on a computer or phone. If this software is added to a computer or smartphone, download it from an official app store.

--Protect personal information. Offers are likely to pop up in social media, texts and emails for free gadgets or airline tickets in exchange for personal information. Before entering personal information online, read the website's privacy policy and understand what the website operators will do with the information. Never enter credit card and personal information into unsecured websites and never email this information (as email isn't completely secure).

--Pay by credit or charge card for extra protection. The Fair Credit Billing Act gives consumers the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while the credit card company investigates. If finding errors in a credit statement, report them to the credit card company within 60 days of receiving the statement. Never pay for online purchases in cash.

--Use search engines to check for scams--and for coupons. Key in a company or product name with words like "scam," "review" and "complaint." Read the reviews, but don't put trust in one review. When a decision has been made, search for the store with terms like "discount" or "free shipping."

--Compare costs. Use a cost-comparison website to check prices, making sure to also consider shipping, handling and return fees.

--Read the fine print. Before submitting an order, carefully check return policies and restocking fees, and find out who's responsible for the return shipping costs. Before checking out, know exactly what items are being purchased, when the items should be delivered and who to contact if they don't arrive when expected.

--Keep a paper trail. Print or save records of online transactions, item descriptions and copies of emails sent between the buyer and the seller. Review credit card statements when received to look for unauthorized charges.

For additional information or to file a consumer complaint, visit the Consumer Protection Bureau at DATCP, send an email to DATCP Hotline or call the Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-422-7128.