NEW YORK -- Lawyer Christine Varney won't do her holiday shopping at just any online retailer.
"I won't give them any information," said Varney, who is a partner in the Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson. "And I write them a letter or an e-mail telling them I won't shop there unless they get adequate protection."
Varney is among experts who are working to try to ensure that shopping online is safe. A former member of the Federal Trade Commission, she's also an adviser to the Online Privacy Alliance, a coalition of 100 businesses and associations pressing for online consumer protection.
Billions of dollars are at stake. Jupiter Research, a New York-based Internet research firm, forecasts that 35 million Americans will purchase gifts online this holiday season, spending some $11.6 billion -- a 65 percent increase from the $7 billion spent last year.
Those shoppers won't come back if they find they're buying problems along with their presents.
Most online retailers are honest business people. But the bad apples out there have been known to collect money and not deliver the goods. Or they sell customers' names to telemarketers. Or, worse, they take credit card numbers or other personal financial information and use it for their own fraudulent purposes.
Todd Waskelis, director of commercial services for the online security firm NETSEC in Herndon, Va., says "It is not a vast badlands out there, but consumers should take all the precautions they can."
There are a number of steps that Varney, Waskelis and other experts say consumers can take to shop safely on the Web:
-- Better yet, look for sites that display seals from BBBOnLine or TRUSTe. Retailers participating in the programs have agreed to outside oversight and compliance review for their privacy policies.
-- Use a secure browser. Many computers come with secure browsers already installed. If you need an upgrade, you can download free software so your browser sends encrypted or scrambled information securely over the internet. Sites to start at are www.netscape.com or www.microsoft.com.
-- Make sure the site you're shopping on is secure. One way to tell is that a closed padlock or key appears in the lower corner of your browser. Another way is if the site's URL, or address, starts with https:// instead of the usual http:// at the point when you submit credit card or other personal information.
-- Shop at companies you know or that have been recommended by friends. Make sure the retailer has a clear policy on returns and refunds -- and a number to call if you've got problems.
-- Don't disclose too much personal information. Legitimate sites need your name, address and, probably, an e-mail address or telephone number. But they don't need your Social Security number or bank account numbers or other similar information. And you should never give out your password.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.