Privacy in Action When Buying Online

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I used to buy things on the Internet all the time, but I have grown so wary in the past three years that I am now reluctant to do business with anyone new. It takes a lot of effort to check out a merchant, and I thought how I do it might be worth sharing.

The purchase began when I discovered that my pen is no longer available at office superstores. There is nothing special about this pen, which sells for less than $2, but I am used to it. I assumed that the pens were no longer made. However, the Internet is especially useful at finding sources for obscure or obsolete items. When they stop making your type of wallet, shirt or shoe, you sometimes can find it online. I wear a watch that hasn't been made for years, but I can get a new one on eBay when it wears out.

I first checked eBay, but no one offered the pens that day. Then I tried several shopping sites and found that the pen wasn't obsolete after all. Many sites offered it. The next step was to consider price and terms.

Some merchants sold the pen one by one. I was used to buying them in a box of a dozen. At first, I couldn't find anyone selling by the box. Some sites offered the pen at list price, with no discount for volume. I eliminated those sites.

Other sites offered pens at a discount, but still at a per-pen price. One site linked to related items, and I discovered refills for the pen. I had been tossing the pens when they ran out of ink, and I never contemplated refilling them. I welcomed the suggestion and decided to do business at that site.

It didn't work out. The shipping charges were too much for my small purchase. Another site with reasonable prices wouldn't tell me the shipping charges until I completed the order form and gave my credit card number. That was unacceptable.

The next site had the items, a good price and OK shipping charges. I needed to know whether the merchant was reliable. I went to several rating sites until I found some evaluations, but customers reported so many problems that I decided to go elsewhere.

I then found a site that met price, shipping cost and rating criteria, but it lacked a reasonable privacy policy. Doing business meant letting the site send spam, share my address and do anything else with my information. I will not do business with anyone who will spam me. Other sites failed for the same reason.

I redid my search and finally found merchants selling pens by the box. Their prices were better, but some washed out over ratings or privacy. The winning site for my order (less than $30 including shipping) had a really low price that despite high fixed shipping charges still was fair overall. It was well rated, promised not to use my information except for my order, and asked for only a reasonable amount of information for the transaction.

Actually, I found three merchants that met price, rating and privacy criteria. All prices were within a buck or two, so price wasn't the issue. What made the difference? All sites took credit cards, but only one accepted PayPal. Because I have a PayPal account, using it meant that I didn't have to disclose a credit card number. Why take that risk if it can be avoided?

Even better, I didn't have to set up a user account and password with the merchant. I have about 70 passwords for various Web sites and online activities. I don't want more. Anyway, the last merchant that made me set up a password forgot about it three months later.

A second factor for the winning site was that it had a BBBOnline seal. Though I have mixed views about Better Business Bureau's standards, I was mildly reassured that the site went to the trouble to get the seal. For what it is worth, a TrustE seal does not reassure me at all.

The pens came as ordered and on time. So was I happy buying online? Not really. I spent more than an hour online buying a dozen pens and refills. I would have been much happier paying cash at a bricks-and-mortar store.

Here's a chilling finale for the merchant. Which Web site got my business? I don't remember. I might find the information at PayPal, but I don't have a credit card bill or receipt that I needed to keep. I didn't think to bookmark the site because everything I liked about it is subject to change. My next purchase, even for the same item from the same site, will require a complete review of price, ratings and other terms. This is a consequence of policies that are changeable at any time.

I will buy again on the Internet, though I don't look forward to another hour-long slog through the entrails of merchant sites. It takes too long and presents too many risks. I see the Internet as a source of last resort.


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