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You’re not alone in cyberspace

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Traveling through cyberspace is challenging enough without having reputable companies violate confidences and their own policies. According to the Associated Press, several online retailers have been giving their customers' personal information to a marketing company (Coremetrics). The AP identified four firms — toy retailer ToysRUs and its baby site BabiesRUs and sportswear sites Lucy.com and Fusion.com — that committed what privacy firms call an "unforgivable breach" of confidentiality.

Such breaches can result in lawsuits from federal regulators, not to mention a serious erosion in consumer confidence in those particular companies.

Most people visiting the various sites don't realize that those firms are using a variety of sophisticated tracking methods to forward personal information to a marketing company. The marketing company not only knows the basic data, such as name and address, but also, depending on the software, identifies Internet browsing habits.

As this page noted last November as a guide for the Christmas holiday shopping season, those who shop in cyberspace should be careful. Just as certain precautions are used when shopping in regular stores, the same holds true on the Internet.

Online shoppers spend billions of dollars on gifts annually. With that much volume, the potential for rip-offs is considerable. To counter that, the nation's largest organization for lawyers, the American Bar Association, offers online shoppers advice through a Web site titled www.safeshopping.org.

Consumers are encouraged to look for symbols indicating the Web site protects purchasers' credit card numbers. They're also encouraged to pay by credit card instead of a debit card or check. Using a credit card provides more legal protection if a dispute arises.

If a Web site does not have a privacy policy stating what information the seller gathers and whether it sells the information to other companies, be wary.

Unfortunately, as already noted in the four cases above, even assurances of privacy are not a sure thing. But being cautious can cut down on the number of online abuses.