The most frightful traps, monsters and sneaks are waiting for the innocent cybercustomer

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The Independent Online
Virtual shopping is not what it seems. It's not a convenience, a cost-saving or modern procurement method. It is a new religion, a passion, a mission for the Internet community. Evidence for this new cult movement is aplenty.

Go to any websters' party and you will hear nothing but "secure transactions", online catalogues and logistics of delivery being discussed over a beer. I have to admit that hearing about electronic commerce mania has made me feel rather smug, since I've been buying things by fax (particularly my pet-hate, Christmas presents) for years.

Fax is just another form of electronic data exchange, so I considered myself an old hand in the digital procurement game and plunged in for a little afternoon online shopping trip. Little did I know that the most frightful traps, monsters and sneaks are waiting for the innocent cybercustomer, lurking behind craftily designed Web shops in the shape of sadistic 40- minute form-filling exercises and suspect e-mail grabbing - out-of-the blue alert-sending weapons cheerfully employed by the New Modern Retailer .

Online shopping is a jungle and here are some tips how to survive retail attack:

1. Never use online grocery shopping services; the delivery comes when your boss thinks you are at work, you have to pay five quid, and you have to live in Hammersmith or Romford. Tesco (www.tesco.co.uk) is also encouraging people to do bizarre things such as order their cakes from a string of text rather than pictures of delicious, creamy little items. Strange as it seems, choosing food this way is probably as weird as having online sex and, as we all know, everybody's at it.

2. Never willingly offer your e-mail address, as you will be deluged with e-mails telling you that the latest food processor is now available in shocking pink (www.sharperimage.com).

3. Never give away your date of birth, your mother's date of birth, or anybody else's, as you will be reminded for the rest of your life that you need to buy presents for everybody in your family. Since you are unlikely to be a dedicated family spender, leave it out of dubious "gift locators" (www.giftline.com).

4. Don't expect that since you bought your computer and a modem and are paying extortionate rates for your peak-time calls, you will be treated gently by the retailers and offered discounts for your troubles. With few exceptions, most of the Web retail piranhas ADD to your purchase price a so-called convenience fee, as if the Internet were an exclusive premium medium instead of a country road still very much under construction.

As pointed out in a recent report from DeltaBravo Consulting, most sane online users would expect the retailer to pick up their tab for the phone call while they are visiting their virtual shops. Otherwise it's like having to buy a ticket to browse in a shop in Oxford Street.

While on my online shopping spree, I was skinned alive by Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com), where for a frivolous purchase of a relatively cheap ticket for a musical, I was charged $5 commission plus an additional transaction fee. As if it costs them more to process my credit card purchase online!

5. Never, under any circumstances, confess that you like Elvis Presley, the Cure or (God forbid!) Crowded House. You will be forever molested by "community building agents" that will inflict on you millions of similarly sad fans of the above (www.firefly.com).

6. Do not succumb, unless under heavy duress, to filling in a competition form that promises a trip for two to Paris. These are mythical voyages and I can promise you that nobody ever wins.

7. Finally, think twice before you submit your credit card number. Fraud online is pretty much unheard of, but your message may still be lost or read by a third party. For a reason that escapes me, hardly any retailer provides an electronic receipt or confirmation of delivery order, so you are left sitting there and wondering, have they got the order? Will it be delivered? Have I paid the right amount? It may matter hugely if the order in question is your wife's anniversary present that needs to be delivered tomorrow to save you from having to sleep on the sofa for a month.

But much worse than death or slow- modem syndrome is the actual process of filling in the payment form. This usually consists of long-winded questions that in the high street shops are resolved by one swipe of a card reader.

The amount of data required to complete the online buying process is scary, to say the least. It took the better part of my lunch hour to buy one item. Surely there must be more to life online than filling in forms. The first one to solve that problem gets a Cyberia T-shirt and a trip to Paris for two.

eva@never.com

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