Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Harvard Square comic book store Million Year Picnic is not only more fun to shop than a website — it's safer as well. (Photo: Margaret Maloney)

Cambridge Day is part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site MainStreet.com ask questions and bloggers answer them. For this entry, I was asked about shopping online safely.

It’s pretty simple: If you’re going to shop online — in fact, if you’re going to have a life online at all — your private information is at risk of being sold or stolen. You’re left hoping the business that got hacked warns you quickly so you can take appropriate steps before your Visa card starts racking up elaborate Alienware computer rig purchases and flights to Amsterdam.

I’m resigned to this. When I have to buy online, there’s almost always a flash of dread followed by an equally fleeting feeling of resignation as I click the button that sends my credit card number (and potentially embarrassing purchase) zooming over the Internet. I imagine it’s like living on the set of a reality television show: You feel so exposed that it becomes pointless to try to shield anything.

And there’s probably no way to eliminate the dangers entirely. Committing to an online presence in shopping and social media has a little too much in common with losing your virginity, including that whether it’s serious or frivolous, it can’t be undone. And the site you go all the way with will remember you always. And may tell others about you. And someone may go reading its little black book for your number and perhaps a revealing photo or two.

It only gets worse as you broaden your activities from an Amazon order here and a tweet there, but no good can come from carrying the analogy any further.

Minimize the damage

Provocative and slightly distasteful metaphors aside, there is a way to minimize the damage of exposing yourself to fraud online, and it’s one that will probably resonate here in Cambridge and Somerville, where there are vigorous shop-local programs and you’d never know Apple computers have only a small share of the market.

The reason that’s pertinent is the canard that Apple computers are more secure than PCs. While there may be a legitimate argument that the Mac operating system is better guarded against worms, viruses and whatnot, its users have escaped evil hackers mainly by being too small to deal with. Fewer Apple users equals a proportionately fewer number of hackers using Apples and writing viruses and worms specifically for them, and fewer Apple users also equals fewer victims. If you intend to have a good night picking pockets, an arena full of drunken football fans is likely more profitable than the night of Afrikaans free verse at that little art gallery behind the free clinic.

So first: Can you buy something down the street before looking for it down the Information Superhighway? I don’t buy anything online if it’s available at a bricks-and-mortar store, although I recognize that rule is a breeze to follow if you’re in a city center and nearly impossible if you’re rural or even in the suburbs, but around here it’s as easy to stop by Newbury Comics, Million-Year Picnic, Black Ink and Cardullo’s as it is to go to Amazon. You can pay in cash, read your comics and eat your bacon chocolate immediately.

Second: If you must shop online, you can shop smaller sites. Buying books online, for instance, you could bypass the Amazon big box store for the Alibris.com specialty shop. You can even shop online at portersquarebooks.com instead of going to Porter Square Books.

By finding niche sellers online, you’re not only promoting Net equality and helping the little guy but buying yourself the tiniest bit of peace of mind. While hackers may be salivating over all the credit card and personal information flowing through Amazon or Facebook, they’ve undoubtedly never heard of Stellabella Toys and stellabellatoyscatalog.com. It’s not that they can’t hack the site; it’s that they don’t know it’s there and don’t care about the relatively paltry pickings in its customer database.

Of course, this is no solution for participating in social media, for which there is no cure, and all of this is irrelevant if all of these tiny online stores get their orders processed in a single, central set of servers that is hackable on its own.

You’re not really buying peace of mind, then, so much as the slightest bit of reasonable doubt.