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ATPM 7.02
February 2001


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Apple Cider: Random Squeezings From a Mac User

by Tom Iovino,

A Matter of Trust

I can vividly remember Thanksgiving 1988. Oh, it wasn’t the turkey, stuffing, or mashed potatoes that made the holiday stand out. Nor was it seeing my family for the first time since having left for college in August.

No, I remember that Thanksgiving because of what happened at the Amtrak station at New Carrolton, Maryland. In college, I always waited until the last minute to purchase my train ticket, because (a) I labored under the mistaken notion that travel agents added a fee to the price of the tickets, and (b) I just liked to wait until the last minute to decide if I really wanted to go home.

That year, at the ticket counter, I handed the cashier my dad’s “extension” credit card that he’d given me only for travel when I was visiting from school. It was imprinted with his name, and the policy at Amtrak was that only the cardholder could sign to authorize the purchase. One look at the card, which didn’t match my name, and the cashier pushed it back across the counter. “We run into trouble with stolen cards, son,” he said. Oh, great. So there I was, surrounded by my suitcases, 25 minutes until my train left, no ticket in my hand.

Desperate for help, I turned to my girlfriend, who had driven me to the station. I asked her to take my ATM card, withdraw the necessary funds, and return with the money while I waited with the bags. She darted out of the station and returned within ten minutes—cash in hand. I kissed her and thanked her profusely for helping me out of the jam. I plunked down the cash, got my ticket, and tucked the ATM receipt into my wallet.

Later in the vacation, I was out at a movie with friends, when I happened to glance at that receipt. I’d been surprised at the Amtrak counter, but you should have seen me when I discovered that my girlfriend had not only withdrawn enough cash for my ticket, but had taken out an extra $40 for herself. I didn’t want to believe this, but it was later confirmed when she tearfully confessed that she had ripped me off.

Okay, once you stop laughing about the deplorable state of my dating years, you may be asking, “What on earth does this have to do with computing?”

The lessons I learned that day in Maryland are the ones that cause quite a few people to shy away from shopping on the Internet. How do you know that someone won’t overcharge you when you make a purchase on the Internet? And just how secure is your information? Can someone charge on your credit card?

Just think about it: you enter your credit card information on a computer screen, and it has to travel through the phone lines (wiretaps!?!) to a computer where some minimum-wage broom jockey is playing Tetris. (At least that’s the claim of most of the folks I know who refuse to shop on the Internet.)

It’s true that there is potential for mischief. Recently, the administrators of such notable sites as,,, and IKEA admitted that for a time, a security breach in their system could have exposed thousands of names, addresses, e-mails, and other personal information to potential hackers. It’s such stories that make people leery of Internet shopping.

But when you think about it, what type of shopping is totally safe?

Let’s take cash for example. Do you want to take a big wad of cash with you to the mall? If someone lifts your wallet, you can’t stop payment on currency. And why do you think that almost all catalog shopping and bill payment envelopes insist that you not send cash?

Checks? When I learned how to use a checkbook, the first thing my mother taught me was to draw a line after the amount so that no one can alter it. My local news recently broadcast a story about a procedure known as “check washing,” whereby someone with the proper solvent can remove most ballpoint pen inks from security paper and redraft a check for another purpose.

And how about those credit cards? When you pass your plate to the waiter, what prevents him or her from making an extra imprint or copying down your information and ordering, say, a new USB scanner? And I was certainly surprised the night I discovered my neighbor and I shared the same cordless phone frequency while she was placing an order with a catalog outfit.

There’s always an element of risk when money changes hands. Fortunately, the vast majority of people we encounter in typical commercial environments are decent people with the best intentions. Regarding the minority, however, there are some pretty sophisticated safeguards in place to help thwart their efforts.

For starters, it always pays to get a recommendation before you shop somewhere. A service like Bizrate reviews hundreds of online shopping outlets and rates them for security, customer service, and delivery. This is valuable information that will help keep your Internet shopping experience a good one.

You should also look to buy from places that protect the transmission of your personal data through a secure server. The majority of you know what I’m talking about, and this is a no-brainer. If you don’t, you’ll know you’re secure when you see a complete key icon in the lower left corner of your Netscape Navigator screen (or a lock icon in the lower right corner of your Internet Explorer screen) and the prefix https: instead of http: in your address window. A subtle thing to check, but one that should offer you some peace of mind.

You should also make a printout of your order reflecting what the retailer is charging you for your purchase. Believe me, this will come in handy should there be some discrepancy between the price you were quoted and the amount you were actually charged.

Also, pay attention to a merchant’s return policy. Just because you’re shopping online doesn’t mean you might not get the wrong size, a broken item, or something completely different from what you had envisioned. Knowing that you can return an item with little or no difficulty will make you feel more confident about using the Internet.

You may want to look into getting a credit card that guarantees that you will not be responsible should someone charge your card illegally. While federal law in the United States caps the amount you have to pay due to fraudulent charges at $50, that’s still $50 that you’ll have to pay if someone decides to rip you off.

As far as security on the merchant’s side is concerned, strides are being made to reduce the likelihood that your personal information can be leaked. Stronger encryption, guarantees by the merchant that they will cover all unauthorized charges, and more diligent attention to security will help ensure that customer information is kept confidential. It is vital to the multi-billion-dollar Internet shopping industry that security lapses are minimized. If not, the confidence of consumers may fall off quickly, and one of the most useful aspects of the Internet could suffer.

And I’d hate to see the breakup of such a beautiful relationship.

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