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Protect yourself

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on April 27, 2001
(Issue 1917, Virtual Fraud)

Online fraud is the hot topic in the national media these days – following previous media trends toward going whole-hog nuts over online porn and e-mail spam.

Pack journalism may not be a pretty sight, but it does tend to focus attention on an issue.

In response to petty crooks and con men following the rest of us online, there are several good programs for protecting yourself while shopping (or selling!) online.

BBB Online

A service of the Better Business Bureau, BBB Online offers a couple of programs for businesses to open themselves up to the type of scrutiny and accountability that local Better Business Bureaus have long provided in the bricks-and-mortar world.

Businesses that are members of their local BBB affiliate for one year (in good standing, with no unresolved customer complaints) are eligible to apply for the BBB Online program.

The BBB Online program now offers two different endorsements – the Reliability Seal and the Privacy Seal. By looking for sites displaying these seals, you can help protect yourself – you'll know that the business has a good track record and that it has a customer dispute program in place.

A guarantee of safety? No, of course not. And undoubtedly some web sites are falsely displaying these seals – online fraud isn't going to respect the BBB any more than it respects you. But by cross-checking a site with a BBB seal against the BBB's own list, you can find out if a business is truly part of the program before shopping there.

In addition, the BBB Online site (URL above) has a very useful consumer guide with step-by-step guidance on how to protect yourself from online fraud. They also have a search engine to find a business that's part of their Reliability Seal program – and although it's a bit hard to find off their menu system, the URL is easy:

CPA WebTrust

CPA WebTrust is another cooperative rating program in which businesses submit their sites for independent verification of their trustworthiness. Like the BBB, the owner of WebTrust is a nonprofit business organization – the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, in this case.

Getting a WebTrust seal to display on your site is more involved than a BBB seal – and may provide a bit more reassurance to consumers.

Any businesses wanting to display a WebTrust seal must first be certified by a licensed public accountancy (not cheap!), disclose their business practices, and then submit to an (expensive) audit.

There is also a set of links to those outfits that have earned a WebTrust certificate – a small list, and mostly business-to-business specialists, not general retailers.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers BetterWeb Program

Probably the strictest set of standards – and thus, theoretically, the most reliable seal to consumers – is held by PriceWaterhouseCooper's BetterWeb Program.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers is one of those massive financial services conglomerates spanning the globe. Based out of London, they're to corporate financial services what GM is to cars.

At $15,000 a pop to have a web site audited for possible granting of a BetterWeb Seal – well, let's just say not too many con artists are going to first fork over that kind of money and then have one of the globe's best team of accountants start looking over their books.

As with the BBB and WebTrust programs, the BetterWeb Program has a list of businesses that have qualified for its seal all hotlinked for your shopping pleasure – and unlike the WebTrust program, there are quite a few consumer businesses, although tending more toward professional services (insurance, real estate, travel) than online malls.