Dear Consumer Ed:  

When I started shopping online and banking online, I was told that if I saw a closed padlock symbol on the screen that the site was safe for me to use because it is encrypted. Is that still true with all the stories I read about online hacking?

Consumer Ed says: 

Because online fraud cases have increased substantially from year to year, anytime a web page asks you for sensitive information, you do need to be able to identify whether the page is secure.  The padlock symbol is one of several ways of knowing if a page is secure. 

Here are a few tips to help you determine whether a page is safe. First, while all web page addresses (URLs) begin with the letters “http”, the address displayed over a secure connection should begin with “https”—note the “s” at the end.  This indicates that the data you enter is encrypted for security, meaning it is scrambled before being sent to the remote site and then decrypted so it can be used.  The same process occurs when the remote site has to send information back to you.  That way, if an unauthorized person intercepts the data, it is unreadable. 

The home page of a site will probably just have a regular “http” URL, such as http://www.Amazon.com.  But if you go to a page within the site that asks you to enter your email address, account number, password, credit card information or other sensitive information, the URL should change to one that has “https” at the beginning.  If it doesn’t, do not enter your information.

Second, when you are on a secure site, your web browser will usually show a “padlock” icon somewhere on the edge of the browser window (but NOT in the web page display area).  For example, Microsoft Internet Explorer displays the lock icon near the right end of the address bar.  The lock icon is not just a picture:  you can click on it to see details of a site’s security.  This is important to know because some fraudulent web sites are built with a bar at the bottom of the web page to imitate the lock icon of your browser.  Before you can know that the lock icon is genuine, you should test its functionality by clicking on it to see whether it actually takes you to the company’s security policies. 

Third, if you arrive at a website from a link in an email message, verify that the website is legitimate before you provide any information to the site – even if you received the email from someone you trust.  Phishing websites can sometimes send email messages that mimic, or spoof, legitimate email addresses.  Phishing is an email scam in which the sender tricks the recipient into revealing personal or confidential information, which the scammer then uses for illicit purposes, such as to commit identity theft or to make unauthorized financial charges.

A good example of this type of scam is a phony Bank of America email that has been circulating recently.  The subject of the email says: “Bank of America Alert: Your Online Statement Is Ready”.  The message appears to be legitimate (especially if you actually are a Bank of America customer), however it is actually a bogus email intended to get you to divulge your banking credentials.  If you ever receive any email messages from an institution with which you have an account, it is always safest to go directly to their main website in order to access your account. 

If you are suspicious about an email, you can determine whether a website link is legitimate by first placing your mouse pointer over the link WITHOUT ACTUALLY CLICKING ON IT. This allows you to notice what web address is displayed in the little window that comes up.  If it displays anything other than the legitimate web address of the financial institution, then it is probably bogus. In the Bank of America email mentioned, there is a link that says “View your statement online today.”  However, when you place you pointer over that link the address that is revealed is very clearly NOT a Bank of America address.

If you are visiting a retail website, check the site for a phone number or street address.  If the site only provides an email address, send a message to the address to request additional contact information. Do not provide personal information to a website that has no contact information.

All this aside, if you are still reluctant to put your financial information out there, you can almost always contact the company via telephone to place your order.

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