James Worrell
It pays to be cautious when you shop online.

Dear Martha: What is proper etiquette regarding holiday cards? Are they a must?

Answer: Holiday cards may not be mandatory, but they're a wonderful way to stay in touch with people, particularly those you don't see regularly. They're also a good incentive to update your address book annually.

The first two weeks in December is the ideal period to send holiday cards. Any earlier seems to force the season, while cards that go out later run the risk of getting lost in the holiday scramble. As for theme, nonreligious cards make it easy to send the same message to people of different religions. If you wish to convey your faith through your holiday greeting, you can always send two sets of cards — religious ones for people who share your faith and generic ones for those who don't.

Whatever the theme of the card, always handwrite a short note, even if it's simply "Happy Holidays from the Smiths." Cards that contain only a printed message feel impersonal, which defeats the purpose. On the other hand, you don't want to say too much. Remember, the point of holiday cards is to let your friends and family know that you're thinking about them (plus, you want to have enough energy for all the other cards on your list).

And if you find you're just too busy to honor the tradition this year, don't despair. Greetings sent in early January wishing a happy New Year deliver warm sentiments just as nicely.

Dear Martha: Online shopping seems very convenient, but is it safe?

Answer: As long as you shop with reputable merchants, your online shopping experience should be worry-free. In fact, most identity-theft cases are still perpetrated by more conventional, low-tech methods, such as people stealing bank statements and other sensitive material out of mailboxes. That said, there's always some risk involved when sending personal information over the Internet, so it pays to be cautious.

There are two main ways to shop online: from a retailer or through an auction site, such as eBay. Always be sure you have a secure Internet connection when you reach the "checkout" phase of the transaction. The address in your Web browser should begin with https rather than http. The s stands for "secure" and means your personal information will be encrypted, and thus unreadable by a third party.

Also, if you have a wireless connection at home, be sure it's protected by a password. You should be able to create the password when installing your wireless router, but contact the manufacturer or your Internet service provider if you experience difficulties or have additional questions. Never make purchases online when logged onto public wireless Internet services (or "hot spots"), such as those available at many airports, coffee shops and parks.

In addition, peruse the site's privacy policy. If the terms and conditions are unclear or if the language is riddled with spelling or grammatical errors, it's best to find another vendor. Read the return policy closely and call to verify that the vendor's customer-service number is legitimate. If you have any doubts, check with the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org) to see if complaints have been filed against the retailer.

Severely discounted or "too good to be true" prices are also red flags. The item may be in worse condition than advertised, or, if it's brand-name merchandise you're buying, it might be a fake.

Finally, you should avoid sending a check, a money order or a wire transfer to an online business. Instead, pay for items with a credit card, a virtual credit card or a payment service, such as PayPal. Credit cards are safer because the Fair Credit Billing Act provides some protection against fraudulent charges. Virtual credit cards are designed to be extremely difficult for thieves to use. They can be obtained through many major credit card companies.

PayPal is perhaps the most secure option, especially if you're buying from individuals or smaller businesses. To use this service, you pay PayPal, which in turn pays the merchant for you. This additional layer of protection means there will be little chance of your personal information falling into the wrong hands.

Questions should be addressed to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 11 W. 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Questions may also be sent by electronic mail to: [email protected]. © Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. All rights reserved.

Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate