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Online Shopping Safety Archived Discussion Room

Fairfax County, Virginia

Online Shopping Safety

It's the holiday season and millions of us are cybershopping from our homes rather than facing the overwhelming crowds and traffic. But do you know how to shop online safely? There can be risks, but there are precautions you can take. Learn more by joining financial crime detectives from the Police Department at 1 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 17, with your questions and concerns about online shopping and conducting safe online financial transactions.

Tom Polhemus : Good afternoon; thanks for joining us. My name is Tom Polhemus and I'm an investigator with the financial crimes section for the FCPD. Our unit receives more than 4,400 calls for service concerning financial crimes/fraud every year. I'm happy to be here to answer your questions, especially on how to prevent being victimized.

Anonymous User : How important is it to purchase items from major retailers like Amazon as opposed to smaller websites? I found some good Christmas deals on sites I hadn't heard of, but I passed them up because I wasn't sure I could trust them with my information.

Tom Polhemus : Online transactions are extremely safe if you use reputable banks and merchants (Sears, LL Bean, etc.). If you use eBay or some unknown web site (Joe's Widgets) you may be putting your money at risk. eBay is a reputable company, however, you are not dealing with them; you are dealing through them with a total stranger. Like you tell your children; don't deal with strangers online. Another safety tip would be that you need to carefully type in the site that you want. If you mis-spell the site, you could very well be re-directed to a fraudulent site that will appear to be a legitimate site.

Alexis L : What is phishing?

Tom Polhemus : Phishing is when you receive an email that looks like it's come from a company that you shop with, or bank that you conduct business with, and they ask you to click on link they provide and subsequently request that you verify account information or personal data. It is important to remember that NO legitimate business would ever ask you to verify anything like that. If you receive one of these emails, asking you to click on the link they provide, delete it and go to that bank or company's real web site. If they were looking for you in this email, there would be a notation on their site indicating this. A common phishing email appears to come from PayPal; people respond to this and subsequently give away their user ids and passwords. It turns into an account take-over where the "bad guys" assume the identity of the PayPal account holder and have people send him/her payments directly. Be careful.

William B. Folsom : Where can you buy protective sleeves to secure your credit cards from being read by unauthorized people? What is the proper term for that product?

Tom Polhemus : This applies to cards that have RFID tags on them. (a small symbol located on the face of the card) You can conduct a search for RFID and retailers that sell the protective sleeve will pop up. Most credit cards/bank cards have the magnetic strip. Crooks can skim this stripe from the back, then re-encode a different credit card with your mag stripe and this becomes your credit card. This is extremely common; it frequently happens at restaurants and more & more at ATMs where your stripe and pin number are stolen. The only real protection against this scam is to closely monitor your account activity. As consumers, we are protected by regulation E. If we notify the bank or financial institution within 60 days of receiving your statement or two days upon discovering the fraud, the bank will close the account and issue you credit. The people that lose money are those that do not review the statement when it arrives in the mail or that do not watch their account activity online. Online monitoring of your accounts is a great way to stay pro-active and it's early fraud detection.

Anonymous User : How do you know if a website is safe to buy from? Are there ways to verify a website's validity and merchant status?

Tom Polhemus : Use a reputable merchant. (Sears, LL Bean, etc.) Do not use a fly-by-night website. EBay and PayPal are good companies, for example, but you are not dealing with them; you are dealing through them and with a total stranger.

Anonymous User : If you are buying from a site that does not have the https designation, is it still safe to use your credit card?

Tom Polhemus : No. It needs to have that "s" on there.

Nick : What is the VA law regarding asking to see/write down DL # on personal checks, at local retailers. Can I be denied of purchasing an item, if I do not want to show a clerk my private ID information. Thanks

Tom Polhemus : If you give someone a check, you must provide ID. What they are NOT allowed to write down on your check is a credit card number. Recording an i.d. of the customer protects the merchant in case of "bad" check. Yes, you can be denied.

Jeff G : I understand that there are one-time use credit cards that work only once or work only at one website. Do these significantly help reduce fraud and which credit card companies have them -- I know Discover does because I use that one. But I haven't seen similar ones from VISA or MasterCard. Are there other features that Credit Card companies have that will significantly reduce a credit card being used fraudulently by other people at other sites?

Tom Polhemus : You can get one time use cards for online purchases, however there are already safeguards in place, regulation E, which says if there is fraud on your debit/credit card and you notify your financial institution of this fraud in a timely fashion which is 60 days upon receiving your statement or two days upon discovering the fraud, the bank will issue you credit. When a charge is disputed with the bank, they send a chargeback notice to the online merchant, debit the merchant account in the amount of the fraud and issue credit to the account holder. It is the online merchant's responsibility to match up billing and shipping addresses and ensure that the charges are authorized. So, in answer to your question, use your existing card and monitor the statement closely.

Karen : I've noticed some people sign the back of their credit card and some people put "show ID". Does it matter what I do?

Tom Polhemus : You can write ask for ID on the back of your card if you want, however, the fine print in your credit card agreement says that you will sign the back of your card. Most places don't seem to check the back of the card anyway. When you received your card, you agreed to sign it, plus if your card is stolen and the crook signs the back of it, the signature on the card will match the receipt. In short; sign your card.

Anonymous User : Aside from shopping from reputable merchants and ensuring that the site has the https designation, what other safeguards or precautions can I take to ensure I shop online safely???

Tom Polhemus : Even reputable merchants CAN have their sites hacked into; compromising customer account numbers. High profile cases recently in the news include well known merchants such as DSW and Amazon being hacked. Fortunately, these reputable companies caught the problem and alerted their customers quickly. The protection for the consumer is that if you dispute a fraud charge on your account, the bank will put the money back into your account.

Anonymous User : My credit card info was stolen a few weeks ago and it was a nightmare to get the charges reimbursed. What should I do if it happens again? Who all should I contact?

Tom Polhemus : Sorry to hear this; but you're not alone. People's credit cards are frequently compromised. We suggest that you call the bank immediately; dispute the charge; close the account; get a police report (from us) and bank will credit your account. It's the law. If this happens again, contact the police and get a report number to furnish your bank with the affidavit of fraud.

Tom Polhemus : Thank you for joining us today. If you are a victim of a financial crime get a police report and send it to your financial institution with an affidavit of fraud. You can contact the Finaicial Crimes Section during business hours at 703.246.7830 or after hours at 246.7800. Leave a message and an Investigator will call you back as soon as possible. It may take a few days. Also, look for our new Financial Crimes section of the PD web site coming soon ( Have a pleasant holiday & safe shopping.