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e-Ethics in e-Commerce

» Writing the Rules

Not to get all philosophical on you, but ethics are our concepts of right and wrong. Ethics are the glue that holds our society together. They’re the foundation of our laws, regulations, rules, traditions, manners, conventions and customs. Without ethics, and people’s willingness to live by those ethics, there’s chaos and anarchy.

Welcome to the world of on-line commerce, where rules are vague, enforcement is virtually non-existent and “the skies are not cloudy all day.” In the three-dimensional world we call home, we have all kinds of signposts to point us in the “right” direction, but not so in Cyberburg. Scams, schemes, crackers and hackers abound — and guess what? You, the ethical, honest e-tailer are victimized by the stigma of on-line lawlessness. And, every time another scam is reported in the news, be it a massive ID theft, or some guy who runs up $250,000 in credit card fraud, on-line commerce suffers.

Rule Number One: There Are No Rules
The FTC, the FCC and even the FBI all have programs to monitor on-line commerce. The programs are as effective as an umbrella in a cat 5 hurricane. Even government officials admit that they can’t keep up with the number of complaints they receive from consumers. Obviously, this undermines consumer confidence in e-commerce.

Sure, the number of on-line buyers is growing and fast. In 1999, fewer than 10% of computer users made an on-line purchase. The most recent figures indicate close to 50% of computer users now do some shopping on line, so indeed, the digital marketplace has grown in the past few years. But you have to wonder where we’d be if the black hats weren’t free to rip off an unsuspecting grandmother or hijack your keyboard (key loggers) when you log on to an unsecured site.

Further, can we expect the growth of on-line sales to increase in light of the numerous ID frauds that have been in the news over the past 24 months: Choice Point, Lexus Nexus, AOL, General Motors and the U.S. Army are just some of the big names that have suffered hacker attacks — everything from social engineering attacks to Trojans to brute force dictionary attacks. The bad guys keep coming up with ways to undermine our on-line community of retailers.

You can’t stop them, but that doesn’t mean you’re helpless. If you, and every other honest, ethical individual with a cyber shop, conduct business ethically, consumer confidence will naturally increase. What we need are e-ethics for e-commerce.

e-Ethics for e-Commerce
There’s nothing like buying something from the local merchants in town. You know them, you trust them, they know you and you swap cards during the holidays. These are relationships built on trust.

Not so in the on-line world of commerce. You’re a home page. Your buyers are numbers and e-mail addresses. You don’t know them; they don’t know you. However, you can and should still conduct business like a local merchant.

  • Customers will come back, generating repeat sales.
  • Satisfied buyers will tell their friends. (How do you think Amazon became so big?)
  • You’ll demonstrate your commitment to being a good, on-line citizen.
  • You’ll be able to look at yourself in the mirror each morning.

So, let’s look at the areas where e-tailers have ethical responsibilities to their customers, to their businesses and to the growing society of on-line businesses and the buying public.

Post Your Business Policies
Do you accept returns? Under what conditions? Do you give cash returns or store credit? Are shipments insured? Where are you physically located? Do you offer customer support and service? 24/7?

Your business policies should be carefully laid out for all to see. There should be a large link off your home page to a page or two of your company’s policies. If you guarantee customer satisfaction, tell each customer. If there are conditions on returns, lay them out clearly. Skip the 6-point text on the back page (the fine print). Be straight with your customers right from the start.

Honor Your Policies
The most overused words on the Internet are “ABSOLUTELY FREE”. Now, unless you’re a complete rube, you know nothing is ever absolutely free. There’s always a hook, a catch.

So, unless it really is absolutely free, don’t hype what isn’t right. If you offer a full, money-back guarantee, then give the customer her money back! There are e-tailers who say one thing in their site text, but practice a different set of rules when it comes to delivering on promises made.

You (and the rest of the world) are better off if you do what you say you’re going to do. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the ethical thing to do.

Come On With the ‘Come-Ons’ Already

Laptops: Only $9.99!!! While they last!!!

You see this kind of ‘come-on’ all the time. So, you click to see what a $9.99 laptop gets you and discover the site sells abacuses. Or, they only had one 10-year old laptop for $9.99, which didn’t last long (while they last). It’s the old bait-and-switch, with a cheap laptop the bait. Once on the site, you’re rerouted to a page of much higher priced laptops. You’ve been suckered — again. No one likes to be suckered. It’s a waste of time and an insult to the individual’s intelligence.

Protect Your Buyer’s Privacy
You can buy a million e-mail addresses (verified, so they say) for as little as a penny an address. And, where did the purveyors of these mailing lists acquire their information? From people (on-line entrepreneurs) who sold them their own company mailing lists. Legal? Yes. Fair? Well, that’s an ethical question. Do you think it’s fair to sell your customer list to a marketing data company for sale to anyone willing to pay $100?

Your strict privacy policy is a selling point. It’s also the ethical thing to do, so proclaim your position right there in your terms of service.

“We will not give or sell your name or other personal information to another party.”

Then, do what you promise.

What About Security?
Another area in which ‘do the right thing’ comes into play.

You gather a lot of personal information on your customers or clients — names, addresses, credit card numbers — the whole shebang. And, as the keeper of this invaluable information, you have a moral responsibility to protect it from hackers and the kids who use your business computer to do their homework.

Is you site secure? Is your computer protected with multi-layers of protection against hackers? A fire wall? Anti-malware software? Encryption for on-line orders? If not, you’re putting your customers at risk. And believe this: they’ll be none too happy when they discover that some cracker has their personal information thanks to your lax security.

Ethics is about responsibility — accepting responsibility and doing the right thing. If you’re going to be a reputable, on-line dealer — one with ethical business practices — you have a responsibility to protect the personal information in your system.

Here’s the bottom line on your bottom line: we have to get rid of the “snake oil” aspect of on-line commerce. We have to start operating like the old store on Main Street. Build trust through clearly-stated business policies, straight-up information (no bait-and-switch), treat customers fairly (there’s always one) and protect the personal information entrusted to you.

When we all earn the confidence of more and more on-line buyers, we make the whole e-commerce ‘society’ a stronger, more vibrant place in which to conduct business — for everyone.

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