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How can I protect myself from Internet fraud?

Question: I've been doing a lot of shopping online lately. How can I protect myself from fraud on the Internet?

Answer: An increasing number of people are shopping on the Internet instead of running to the mall or flipping through a mail-order catalog.As a result, federal regulators say they've seen a dramatic rise in the number of hucksters and downright criminals flocking there as well.

The Federal Trade Commission has gone after dozens of companies for Internet fraud over the past five years. The agency has seen a rise in complaints about prescription drug scams, and last year shut down a company for advertising computers over the Net but never delivering the goods.

Of course, shopping on the Net can be as safe as shopping in a store or by mail, but certain precautions have to be taken. The FTC publishes a brochure of tips for e-shopping. It's also available on its Web site (www.ftc.gov).

Some of the FTC's recommendations:

--Use a secure browser.

This is the software used to navigate the Internet. A browser should comply with industry security standards, such as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Secure Electronic Transaction (SET). These standards encrypt or scramble the purchase information sent over the Net and protect each transaction.

--Shop with known companies.

Anyone can set up shop online under almost any name. If you're not familiar with a merchant, ask for a paper catalog or brochure to get a better idea of the merchandise and services. Also, determine the company's refund and return policies before placing an order.

--Pay by credit or charge card.

If you pay by credit or charge card online, the transaction will be protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act. Under this law, consumers have the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while the creditor investigates them. Consumers are only liable for the first $50 in unauthorized charges.

--Keep a record.

Print a copy of the purchase order and confirmation number for your records. Orders made via the Internet also are covered by the federal Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule. This means that unless stated otherwise, merchandise must be delivered within 30 days, or the company must notify you.

--Pay bills online.

Some companies let you pay bills and check your account status online. Before signing up for any service, though, evaluate how the company is securing your financial and personal information. Many companies explain security procedures on their Web site. If you don't see a security description, call or e-mail the company.

--Keep passwords private.

Be creative when establishing a password, and never give it out. Avoid using a telephone number, birth date, or a portion of a Social Security number.