The Internet is a wonderful place for research, for exchanging ideas and pure entertainment. But there are dangers that lurk in its electronic dark alleyways. Internet beginners, and veterans alike, need to be aware of that without becoming terrified of everybody and everything you encounter.
This article will help Internet beginners develop a healthy skepticism. Here are a few things you should do to practice safe Web surfing, a few ways to avoid common scams and email come-ons, and how to discern when you should (and should not) enter your credit card information.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read!
One of the best things about the Internet is the freedom that it gives ordinary people. If you have something to say, you can publish it on your own Web site, or post it on a community discussion forum, or write a long essay in an email message.
However, that’s also one of the Internet’s dangers: anyone can say anything. Unlike the information presented in newspapers, magazines, and TV news shows (and on their Web sites), plenty of people can write whatever they feel like, with nobody checking facts or editing the text. You could create a Web site in which you posted “evidence” that aliens had landed in Pittsburgh, and (due to the glories of Web search engines) someone would read it. Someone might even believe that it’s true.
So the first rule of safe Web surfing for Internet beginners is to put on your Cynicism Flak Jacket. Don’t assume that everything you find on the Internet is wrong — but don’t assume that it’s true, either. If the information is surprising, check other references. Always consider the source; even if the information is well meant (and most of the time, it is), the data can be presented with an individual’s or organization’s personal agenda, or, in the worst cases, it can be faked.
You won’t be bitten by such misinformation very often. But there’s one exception that captures the attention of most new Internet users: “warnings” that arrive in your email box. I’m not talking about email scams and spam, but rather the messages you get from family and friends which tell you about something dangerous, ominous, or time-sensitive and always urge you to “pass it on.” One message might tell you to participate in a boycott against the gas companies; another might warn you about a fire hazard from a common household item; a third might share a “fact” that’s actually an urban legend.
Before you click on the Forward button, check out the message’s veracity. The fastest way to do so is to visit www.snopes.com, type in a few key words (such as “boycott gas”), and learn whether the claims are true. If they are, feel free to send the message to all your friends — but please leave me off the list. I’ve probably seen it before.
Internet Beginners Need to Watch Their Wallet!
Passing around urban legends won’t hurt anything but your pride. Greater dangers exist when it’s time to pull out your credit card to order goods or services online.
There’s nothing wrong with e-commerce. I’ve bought just about everything online: vanilla beans, woodworking equipment, books, office chairs, and stained glass crafting supplies. Buying online is usually cheaper, it’s often more convenient, and online specialty stores offer a wider selection than you’ll find at the nearby shopping mall.
The key to buying safely is, again, to be sure of the source: deal with known and reputable vendors (at least when you’re new). In “real life,” you know which stores you trust implicitly; the bigger ones are likely to have a Web presence. So do the organizations you’ve come to trust for checking reliability, such as the Better Business Bureau and Consumer Reports.
There are well known online-only stores with stellar security reputations, such as Amazon.com, and some established online brands whose names you won’t recognize as swiftly (because you’re new in the neighborhood). Check out epinions.com and bizrate.com, for example, for reviews of various online stores. Such sites let people write reviews of vendors and products, and they’ll also help you find the best price for a given item. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy from vendors who aren’t listed on such sites. But do try to learn something about the vendor before you pull out your wallet.
Those are just a few ways to protect yourself financially and from embarrassment online, but Internet beginners have now been outfitted with enough information to go online with confidence!