What's an Internet columnist supposed to do?
I've got some useful tips for safe shopping and
finding low prices. But in this season of good will
toward all, I'm generating a lot of ill will among
local retailers by promoting online shopping.
To all local retailers: my sincerest apologies.
To my loyal readers: shop locally. BUT . . . if you
can't find it nearby, then head to the Net.
Now that my conscience is somewhat assuaged, I
can tell you about a neat offering from several
credit card companies that lets you practice safe
shopping. Remember, this is coming from someone who
had $8,000 stolen online (and got it all back).
The first thing to realize is that there's very
little risk if you make credit card purchases.
Federal law stipulates that your maximum liability
is $50, and many credit card companies offer zero
liability for unauthorized use of your credit
Even so, it's time-consuming and problematic to
resolve such situations, as I well know. Plus, the
reason I lost money in the first place was that
someone had gotten my credit card number and used
it to gain control over two of my online
Some credit card companies have now come up with
a solution that allows you to shop online, yet not
give out your credit card number. Citibank calls it
Account Numbers. It's a free service that
generates a substitute number in place of your real
number when you make a purchase.
Let's say you want to buy a book on Amazon. Once
you know the price, you go to your account on the
Citi web site where you generate a new number to
use. The service also lets you specify the amount
associated with that new number and an expiration
You then enter that Virtual Account Number into
the online shopping form. If for some reason Amazon
were to try to charge you more than the specified
amount, they'd get an error. Similarly, once Amazon
posts the charge, that number will no longer be
valid. If someone had stolen it, that person
wouldn't be able to use it for anything.
When you shop using Virtual Account Numbers,
your purchases show up in your statement just like
any other transaction.
The Discover Card uses a slightly different
approach. Called Discover
Desktop, it gives you the convenience of not
having to first visit a website to generate a
number. Instead, you download some software that
resides on your computer and that generates a
"Single-Use Card Number" when you're ready to make
a purchase. The software actually fills out the
online checkout form for you.
According to the Discover website, "you can use
a Single-Use Card Number at each online retailer;
for one, multiple, or recurring purchases. Your
Account number is protected during checkout because
your actual Discover Card Account number is not
My friend John who told me about these services
also recommends MBNA's "Shopsafe."
I couldn't find any info about it on the website,
but apparently it's an option they offer once you
sign up for their credit card. He says that MBNA's
approach seems the clearest to use, and he likes
the fact that it forces you to set a limit, whereas
with Citi you have to remember to do that.
I think these services are a great way to give
you even more security when shopping online.
Speaking of shopping--in recent months Yahoo
bulked up its online shopping
portal so that you can search 17,000 vendors.
You can browse categories or search for a
particular item. You're able to sort the general
search results by price by clicking on the Lowest
Price link. Once you select a particular brand, say
a Canon PowerShot A70 digital camera, you can use
the Compare Prices tool to find which vendor has
the lowest price. There are also User Reviews for
many of the items, particularly electronics
(including over 300 reviews of this particular
Another major shopping portal, Shopping.com,
links its search results with the Epinions website,
so that you can have access to over 1 million
consumer reviews of a wide range of products.
And while you're shopping, be sure to check out
"Inside the Book" feature. Now when you do a
search, you'll not only pull up books that have
your search term in the title or keywords or
description, but also those books where your term
appears anyplace in the book. Awesome. Of course, I
searched on "Jim Karpen" and was surprised to find
a book that mentioned an article I'd written.
Happy Holidays. Here's wishing you safe online
© 2003 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.