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How secure is online buying?

Adopt some simple Internet strategies to protect and safeguard yourself.

Agriculture's lag in adopting Internet purchasing may work in a farmer's favor. While consumers logged onto buying sites in record numbers, many farmers watched and waited.

Now as farmers explore e-commerce sites for farm inputs, U.S. consumers have run into the first flush of Internet trouble. As a result, agricultural sites are learning from others' mistakes and producing secure venues for farm business.

Online trouble. Consumer magazines and newspapers are plastered with news about Internet security and privacy issues. And no wonder. Recent shutdowns of business at popular sites like and eBay caused everyone to rethink the Internet. Then word of the ability of DoubleClick, an Internet advertising company, to track and sell consumer buying profiles hit the news. Suddenly, it looked as if Big Brother is watching everyone.

Add these troubles to the National Consumer League's estimate that six million U.S. consumers experienced Internet-related scams with credit cards last year.

But experts in agricultural e-commerce assure farmers that the Internet is a great place to do business. "Because of what has happened, companies are bending over backwards to make sure you feel comfortable transacting business," reports Scott Belknap, vice-president of applications for E-Markets. "Businesses have made such a push to do commerce over the Internet, they have beefed up their sites to make them accessible and comfortable."

Internet crime. One buyer who was a victim of Internet crime still stands behind the safety of online business. Bill Gass of Fielder's Choice discovered charges from Serbia, Italy and California on his credit card bill. He believes the number was stolen over the Internet.

In spite of his experience, he says sites like Fielder's Choice Direct, which sells seed, go to great lengths to maintain security. Fielder's Choice subscribes to Verisign, a ser-vice that encrypts credit card numbers. "The information never passes across the Internet in a readable form," he explains. "Buying on the Internet is probably safer than buying over the phone."

Gass recommends that, to avoid what happened to him, growers should make sure an area is secure before giving any valuable information.

The right to privacy. Privacy on the Internet also has become a big issue. Most activity on the Internet can be tracked to individual users. Some Internet companies collect the information and market it to companies that want to target specific customers. The days of anonymous surfing are over.

Several agricultural e-commerce sites do not follow that trend. Although these sites do track customers, they are adamant about not releasing the information to other parties unless the grower agrees to it. Privacy statements readily found on the sites detail what information is collected and what is done with it.

To companies like E-Markets, customer privacy is vital. "We're staking our business on it," E-Markets' Belknap says. The company does not market customer information to other parties. also makes it well known on its site that it does not release a customer's personal information to a third party without the customer's permission.

Know their reputations. Although problems and perils do exist on the Internet, growers can safely navigate and buy from it by following commonsense rules, such as buying from a local retailer.

"It's just like buying a car," Belknap says. "Make sure you buy from a reputable dealer." Over and over, Internet experts recommend knowing the reputation of the person or company you intend to do business with on the Internet.

If you are unfamiliar with the business, ask for its address and phone number. Then check its history with outside organizations such as the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or ask other growers about it. The BBB operates a Web site for reports about online businesses:

The most reputable e-commerce sites publish business policies within easy reach of their home pages., for example, rolls out a 10-page document detailing its business policies, user agreement and privacy statement just one click away from its home page.

Then take the time to read the policy statements. "Make sure you understand the rules," reports Michael R. Ward, consumer economist, University of Illinois. "There are as many different types of auctions as you can imagine and the rules differ. Some offer escrow services, which will cost money." But an escrow service may save money in the long run by guaranteeing a product will be delivered.

"It is amazing just how many products are sold," Ward adds. "We had one student want to research a specific gold coin. He found 500 auctions for that one coin. It can be daunting going through all the sites."

Security, security, security. The level of security on a Web site gives clues about the site's reputation. Highly reputable sites offer more.

When you enter a secure area of a site, a locked padlock will appear at the bottom of the screen and/or the "http" in the URL box will switch to "https." Check for them before typing in personal information such as credit card numbers.

Encryption services such as Verisign provide security for Web sites. Some sites display security logos on the home page.

"If you continue to do lots of transactions with a business, it pays to set up an account and password," Ward suggests. "A password lets the business know you've successfully conducted business with them in the past."

When setting up passwords, use something easily remembered but stay away from established information like addresses, phone numbers and social security numbers. Belknap suggests mixing symbols and numbers in passwords. "If someone is trying to hack into a password and must use all those special characters, it takes longer," he says.

Do not use the same password for other accounts. And keep all passwords private. Do not put the password on a note and tape it to a computer.

In the future, expect more passwords and higher security measures for doing business online. "Applications are requiring digital signatures and security keys," Belknap says. "As you click on something, you need a key or more than a password to run it."

Beware of e-mail. "E-mail is a big security issue on its own," Belknap says. "You need to understand the Internet is a public highway. Any e-mail you send can potentially be looked at by an unscrupulous provider."

If you send sensitive business information through e-mail, encryption services are available. Check the Internet for encryption possibilities like Internet watchers expect that other encryption services will be developed as the cryptographers design more sophisticated systems.

Probably more troublesome with e-mail is the potential for unintended third parties to reroute and read it. "One sore spot is people sending lewd jokes or derogatory comments," Ward says. "Think twice before sending those. E-mail is much more public than a phone conversation."

Virus prevention. Computer viruses enter through e-mail, attachments and programs downloaded from the Internet. If you don't have an anti-virus program running on your computer, you should. "When you get an attachment, be aware of what it is and who is sending it," says Belknap. "If you have no virus program, don't open it. A virus cannot infect your PC if you don't open the attachment and you delete the message.

"The more your e-mail address gets out there, the more likely you will get on somebody's list to receive something you may not want to receive," he continues. "I recommend farmers buy a virus program like Norton's anti-virus program."

When purchasing anti-virus software, register with the company because it should provide software updates as new viruses infect the Internet.

Internet service providers also are starting to provide virus-checking programs for a minimal fee, Belknap says. He subscribes to a service from USWest th at scans e-mail for viruses before they are delivered to his address.

To see if a Windows operating system is up-to-date with the lastest security fixes, Belknap suggests logging onto

Control your surfing. When surfing the Internet, pay attention. "If there are a lot of banner ads that look like part of the page, they have buttons and will take you somewhere else," Belknap says. Watch the URL address box to see if it changes before checking out.

Be careful of Internet searches, too. Belknap says a search of Yahoo for American Girl dolls turned up several pornographic sites. Steer children to safe search engines such as

If you do get on questionable sites, be careful what information you give or what you download. Security could be a problem and your privacy compromised.

When you use an Internet browser, copies of pages and images are retained in a computer cache. While this speeds up browsing, it also leaves a user trail, particularly for people who share your computer. Delete the cache after browsing to prevent anyone from checking your browsing habits. The preference folder on the browser should contain a button to empty the cache.

Do you really want those cookies? Web sites often attach a "cookie" or tiny file to your hard drive to identify you the next time you log onto a site. Cookies are only supposed to be retrievable by the site. They may contain everything from how many times you've visited the site to your credit card number.

Cookies were designed to be a convenience for site visitors. Every time a visitor logged on, he or she did not need to retype identification information. The cookie remembered.

Most reputable e-commerce sites, including agricultural ones, require cookies from users.

A cookie controversy erupted when the information was used to target advertising. Companies like DoubleClick collect cookie information to profile a user's interests and browsing habits. For example, the company can match banner ads with users who frequent high-tech sites. Users protested, citing a breach of privacy.

"The question is, Do you want them to know that much information about you and will they sell it to other vendors?" Ward says. "My browser accepts cookies, but I have it set to ask me if I want them. So if it is a reputable site, I will accept it. If I go to a site that seems a little fly-by-night, I will be more reluctant to accept a cookie.

"Cookies are nearly ubiquitous. Any retailer with any sophistication will have them, especially any site that has a banner ad. It is a way of measuring who is looking at these ads."

Check out the cookies already on your system. From the browser, find an Internet options tab that will lead to Temporary Internet Files. Look for files with the word "cookies" in the name and delete unwanted ones.

The browser may be set to immediately accept a cookie, reject it or notify you when a site wants to place a cookie. These settings usually are found under security settings in an Internet options section.

The latest way to keep private while browsing is through new anonymous services. The services act as a third party between the user and the Internet. They retrieve files and pages without revealing the user's identity.

Check privacy statements. Cookies are an inevitable part of doing business on the Internet. Users can learn more about how a Web site uses the information in the site's privacy statement, which should be located somewhere on the site. Often, companies offer an "opt-out" box for users who do not agree to share information with third parties.

Some sites use a third party to verify that the site meets minimum security and privacy requirements. TRUSTe is one often seen on farm sites. The service verifies that the Web site has met the basic requirements of disclosure, choice, access and security.

Undeterred use. As tales of Internet woes hit the news, most experts agree online business forges ahead. Web companies will correct problems. Satisfied consumers will continue their Internet use undeterred.

"The Internet is thought to be the reason why home computers are taking off," Ward says. "Consumers want to shop online, look for information and get baseball scores."

Common sense combined with new services to ensure security and privacy should make online businesses profitable.

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