Basic rules for protecting your privacy when you send personally-identifiable information online.
In a perfect world we would never question if an offer was real or not, it just would be and that would be the end of it. But we live here and we're going to want to know if an offer is 'on the level' before giving out our information, right?
At Abbys we do our best to avoid listing scams, schemes and other 'shady side' offers. But we're only human and not perfect, so the final decision to order something or not will have to be up to you.
You get to a site with a freebie offer, and you may ask: Is this a real company?
This is a hard one, I know, with the PCs and software available today almost anybody can 'create' a company in a few days. But after a while you get a 'feel' for the bogus ones. The following tips may help.
Tip-off 1: How good is the overall website design and usability?
Type A says: "We will not sell, trade, or otherwise make your information available to anyone else."
Type B says: "We will sometimes make your information available to our business partners and advertisers."
Obviously, type B companies are going to be giving your personal information to whoever is willing to pay for it. (If you sign-up, do not give them your main e-mail address. Instead use one of your disposable addresses.)
Tip-off 3: Read the fine print.
Sometimes an offer looks real good at first, but not so good so after you read the agreement or fine print. It's up to you to decide how badly you want the freebie offered.
Tip-off 4: Shipping & Handling.
Some offers will want to charge for shipping and handling to cover costs, these charges are usually very reasonable. Other offers will use the 'reasonable' cost as a starting point and try to make a small profit in addition.
Most of the time the final shipping & handling cost is still pretty good for some items, like software, t-shirts and some cosmetics, especially if you compare the final S&H cost to regular retail.
It's up to each of us, as individuals, to decide if that tube of lipstick or that CD is worth the $5.95 or not.
Tip-off 5: Is the offer still valid?
Look for an expiration date, or something else that will 'date' the offer - sometimes a company will just stop maintaining the offer and 'forget' to remove the page, knowing that people will be entering their site from that page for a long time.
A few more thoughts on protecting your personal information when you order stuff.
Listen to your feelings.
If you want something but don't feel comfortable with it for any reason then Don't Sign Up For It. Trust your instincts and don't let the glitzy advertising copy sway your decision.
Your e-mail address.
Get a couple internet-based e-mail addresses to use while signing up for freebies. You will often need to respond to a confirmation e-mail to finish the process, but don't use your main e-mail for that purpose.
There are hundreds of places to get a free temporary, or 'disposable', e-mail address. Or if your ISP provides several, like AOL does, just use one for a while then delete it and create a new one.
Be wary of free offers that require you to give more personal information than what seems appropriate when you compare it to the relative value of the freebie. For instance, sometimes it may be appropriate for them to ask for your phone number, but most often it's not.
Your credit card.
Some people are understandably wary about giving out their card numbers online. One option is to look for an "Off-line order blank". Where you print the form, fill it in and send it via snail mail.
Personally, I use a separate checking account with a debit card for my online shopping. I have no paper checks, no overdraft protection and don't keep more than $50 in it at any time. If your bank won't do that (some require overdraft protection) then try Key Bank (www.key.com). Some websites say they don't take debit cards, but I put the debit number in anyway and have never been refused.
A few years ago a lady told me she had a special credit card just for using online. She had a low limit put on it and no overdraft protection, and she said that she checked the balance at least once a week, just to be sure.
Another option is to use one of the online pay services. My personal preference is PayPal - they are accepted by over 38 thousand stores online. You can find out more about the PayPal service here.
Last, but not least...
Are you on a secure connection?
All browsers use some sort of indicator to let users know when the internet connection is a secure (encrypted) connection.
For example, Netscape and MSIE both use a little padlock icon somewhere on the bottom of the window. When unlocked it's an 'open' connection, when closed it's a secure connection.
You can also look at the web address (url) of the website - if it starts with https - the 's' part of the https means that it's on a secure server.
Often when you enter a page that is secure a small warning window will pop-up telling you that you are entering a secure area, and asking if you wish to do so.
Either way, before you send any information that you want kept private look for the secure icon or code. If it's not there, think twice before sending it.