Are Online Seals of Approval Legit?

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Seals, ubiquitous on e-commerce sites (we stopped counting at 23 issuers), are meant to reassure shoppers. Companies typically pay for seals and promise (and may have to show) that they'll abide by the requirements, which vary: Some focus on customer complaints, others on privacy concerns. (ConsumerReports.org displays seals for Trustwave Trusted Commerce, indicating that the site protects credit card data, and Verisign Secured, indicating that customer information is sent over a secured connection.)

But some seals aren't what they seem.

Problems that can crop up

In the worst cases, Web sites use seals without permission and could ignore requirements. Moreover, when you click on a seal to read its underlying certification, as you sometimes can, that document could be fake. Click on a pirated Better Business Bureau Accredited Business seal, for example, and you might see a phony BBB report for the company, complete with an A+ rating.

Some seal issuers have few requirements. Web sites that pay a $47.94 initiation fee and $14.97 a month to belong to the Online Business Bureau (not to be confused with the BBB) get an automatic "green" rating. Those that don't, including Wal-Mart and the American Red Cross, get a "yellow" rating and a warning: The OBB recommends doing business only with its members. Other seals mean that personal data sent over the Internet can't be intercepted by a third party but say nothing about whether data is kept safe once it arrives.

Some seal issuers also disagree on a site's merits. We found sites with seals from TRUSTe, Trust Guard, McAfee and others that earned an "F" or a "D" from the BBB because of consumer complaints or other transgressions. Similarly, TRUSTe says it has rejected sites with a BBB seal because they didn't follow proper privacy standards.

What you can do

Take some comfort from Web seals only if you've verified their authenticity by checking with the issuer. Some issuers keep a directory of certified sites. When shopping online at a site you don't know:

Research the company. Checking the Better Business Bureau's site (www.bbb.org) is still one of the best ways to assess companies. Also try a Web search using the company's name and words such as "complaints" and "rip off."

Use a credit card. If a virtual card number, linked to your real one and often good for a limited time and amount, is available from your credit card company, use it.

Limit data you provide. There's no reason a Web retailer needs your Social Security number to sell you slippers.

—Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ electronics buying advice.

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