Be smart when shopping online for Valentine's

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You've found the perfect gift on the Internet for your sweetheart. Just click and buy, right?

Wrong.

If you're not careful when shopping online for Valentine's Day -- the third-busiest shopping season behind Christmas and back-to-school -- your personal information could become prey to identity thieves and hackers.

"Be a wise shopper. If you're going to buy online, be sure to research the company," said Frank Dorman, a spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission.

He recommends searching product and company review sites on the Internet, such as Epinion.com and the customer review section of Amazon.com, to learn how other consumers rate the company. He stresses reading the site's privacy policy to be sure how your personal data will be used and shared.

When buying jewelry, in particular, it's crucial to check the seller's reputation with the Better Business Bureau or the state attorney general's office.

The FTC also recommends consumers:

- Read the company's return policy. Some retailers offer shorter return policies or charge "restocking" fees. Also, find out who pays for the shipping costs.

- Know your product. Read the company's product description carefully. Luxury brand items at cheap prices could be counterfeit.

- Don't be tricked by false e-mails or pop-ups. Legitimate companies will never send unsolicited e-mails asking for passwords, login names or financial information.

- Choose your payment method. Credit cards are normally a safe option because the buyer can seek a credit from the seller. If a credit card number is stolen, victims are often not liable for more than $50 in charges. Don't send cash or use a money wiring service.

- Keep records. Print and save records of online transactions, such as the product description, price, receipts and e-mail exchanges with the seller. Make sure your credit card statements don't have unauthorized charges.

- Turn your computer off. When you're not using it, switch off your machine to prevent hackers from installing harmful software. Visit OnGuardOnline.gov or staysafeonline.org for tips to protect your computer.

- Install anti-virus or anti-spyware software and a firewall. These tools provide information such as whether Web sites are phishing sites or distribute spyware, but they must be updated regularly, he said.

- If a site is secure, an "s" will be added to the URL (which is found in the address bar) when you make a purchase, indicating that your information is encrypted or secured. For example, a URL such as http would change to either "https" or "shttp."

- Other signs that Web sites are secure include a padlock on the browser's status bar.

For more information, contact the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov or call (877) 382-4357.

Reach LaTina Emerson at (706) 823-3227 or latina.emerson@augustachronicle.com.

HOW MUCH WILL YOU SPEND?

The National Retail Federation predicts that Valentine's Day shoppers will spend $17.02 billion this year. Here's how the organization expects the spending to break down:

Gifts for loved ones:


- Significant other or spouse -- $79.99


- Friends -- $5.75 (versus $4.93 last year)


- Children's classmates and teachers -- $4.05 (versus $3.35 last year)


- Co-workers -- $3.02 (versus $2.40 last year)

Battle of the Sexes (spending on gifts and cards):


- Men -- $163.37


- Women -- $84.72

Spending by Age:


- Ages 25 to 34 -- $160.37


- Ages 18 to 24 -- $145.59


- Ages 45 to 54 -- $117.91


- Ages 35 to 44 -- $116.35


- Ages 55 to 64 -- $110.97

Total spending on pets: $367 million

Source: National Retail Federation

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