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Tips for Safe Online Shopping

Online purchases have become as routine as shopping in brick-and-mortar retail stores, but online shopping has a reputation for scams and other downsides. You can shop online safely by taking a few impactful precautions before you start checkout.

Some of the risks involved with online shopping also are present in the physical world. For example, a store cashier might secretly copy and use your credit card number. In the digital world, a hacker could steal your credit card information from an online retailer's server.

This article offers strategies to avoid common shopping problems online. Pair these tips with a good defense against identity theft, and you'll have a recipe for a smooth shopping experience.

Stick With Trusted Companies

Most people have a few favorite physical stores they trust. You might not think twice about shopping at a large chain retailer, grocery store, or a local ma-and-pa shop. If other people in town shop there, you may assume it's safe.

Online stores are more unreliable. The internet gives small vendors in all corners of the world a chance to thrive, but not all sellers are genuine.

Bad actors can set up a seemingly legitimate shopping site, sell imaginary products, and take the website down the following week. If this is the first time you have heard of a particular online seller, thoroughly research it before giving away any information.

Be Skeptical of Online Store Reviews

Some internet retailers plaster their websites with five-star rave reviews. Don't let store or product reviews trick you into a false sense of security. Customer reviews can be helpful, but remember that testimonials aren't always genuine.

Some online retailers tamper with the reviews they show. They might delete any negative reviews, such as those with ratings lower than three stars, or post fake positive comments and ratings. Even mobile device app stores may be rife with phony reviews.

Search the internet for independent reviews instead. Discussion forums can give you clues about the seller's reliability. You can check out reviews of online shops at the Better Business Bureau (BBB). It is illegal for a seller to post a fake review on the BBB website, and the BBB monitors reviews to catch as many fraud cases as possible.

Avoid Fake Ecommerce Websites

Spoofing scams involve creating a fake website that looks just like a legitimate one but has a different web address. The goal of such scams is to give users the false sense that they are having a safe online shopping experience.

Double-check the URL in your browser's address bar or hover over a link to see the URL before you click it. Confirm it's the real website before purchasing, sharing, or downloading anything.

Often, scammers will send a link to the fake site via email or social media in hopes that a few people will unwittingly try to buy something or share sensitive data. They can also post a phony URL that will be very similar to the real one to attract people who mistype the web address.

Sometimes, a fraudulent vendor will try to get your attention by creating the loudest, flashiest site possible. Look for misspellings, the use of all capital letters, excessive dollar signs and exclamation points, or email messages with the same over-the-top elements.

Use a Secure Internet Connection

When you check out, ensure your connection is secure. A secure connection involves more than having full Wi-Fi or cell service.

Cybercriminals are notorious for targeting public Wi-Fi networks, which are more likely to have weak cybersecurity protection. You may want to buy something online while you're at a coffee shop or hotel. Consider connecting to public hotspots via a virtual private network (VPN), which can hide your connection from fraudsters.

Shopping might not seem like a high-security activity, but a website with low internet security can risk your accounts and information. If you don't see the little closed padlock symbol in your browser, you may not be engaging in safe online shopping. The padlock conveys that the site uses a secure sockets layer (SSL), a form of encryption that keeps your checkout data safer.

You can also check that the URL starts with “https" instead of the more basic “http." This check alone doesn't guarantee a shopping website is safe, but it can be an extra clue as you assess a seller.

Watch for Scammers' Favorite Phrases

Safe online shopping is a battle against many forms of fraud. The following phrases should raise red flags that the online vendor is potentially involved in shady behavior:

  • Now or Never: Pressure tactics try to convince customers that they would be crazy not to take advantage of a given deal or sale. A scammer knows you're more likely to back out of a sale after taking some time to consider it. A reputable company will give you reasonable time to make an informed purchase.
  • It's Free: Often, goods advertised as free are just introductory offers for subscriptions that cost quite a bit later. For example, you may sign up for a free pound of coffee but later see credit card charges for additional pounds of coffee the seller keeps sending to your house.
  • No Mail Please: Sellers might ask you to pay by check or money order through a private delivery service to circumvent postal fraud laws.
  • Get Rich Quick: The promise of instant riches is nothing new, but they have shifted over the years. A scammer might claim they can help you attain passive income, investment returns, or resell profits. If it's a fraudulent business, the con artist will be the person who gets rich through their targets.

Free trials, limited-time offers, and other sale strategies are sometimes legitimate, but offers similar to the above phrases can indicate that a deal may be too good to be true. Often, such pressure tactics are intended to get someone to make an unwise purchase or spend more than they planned to.

Protect Your Store Online Account Details

There are many ways to shield your privacy when shopping online, such as:

  • Read the company's privacy policy to understand how it uses your personal information (you may need to agree to these terms at checkout)
  • Reject unnecessary cookies and digital trackers
  • Avoid typing your login information or sensitive data in a shared computer, such as a library or in-store device
  • Only give the seller information that is essential to completing your order
  • Set strong passwords and change them often.

Someone who gains access to your store account might purchase products under your name but send them to a different address. Protecting your account details can prevent this problem.

Read the Retailer's Warranty and Return Policies

If something is wrong with the product you receive, you'll want to replace or refund it. Once you shop with a particular seller, your purchase is subject to its policies.

Most purchases come with an implied warranty, meaning the seller guarantees it will perform as advertised. However, return policies may include a restocking fee or other conditions. Some vendors do not offer refunds; they only offer exchanges for different items.

Route Payments Through a Credit Card

Debit cards can let scammers and hackers charge your bank account directly. You'll be liable to pay some or all of the fraudulent charges, depending on when you report the theft to your bank. Most bank accounts offer less protection against suspicious activity than credit card companies.

Paying with a credit card could still lead to a cybercriminal racking up charges, but the money in your bank account will still be secure. You can call the company to dispute charges on your credit card statement before actually paying them.

Hide Your Credit Card With Secure Payment Methods

Legitimate online shops understand they have a legal responsibility to protect consumer's financial information. This duty includes setting up safe systems to encrypt and record transactions. In general, they won't ask you to pay in a convoluted or risky way, such as through gift cards.

If the vendor allows, you can also use online payment services, such as PayPal or Apple Pay. These services hide your credit or debit card details from the retailer for an extra layer of security. They aren't foolproof, so check your transaction activity with these services on a regular basis.

Virtual credit cards are growing in popularity. These services conceal your real credit card information. They create a digital version of your card with a different number.

Using a virtual credit card is legal, as you're paying the seller for the goods. The online store never receives your personal data and real card information, so it is less likely to expose your card to fraud.

Reverse Image Search

Sometimes, a product looks too good for the cheap price. While believing you've scored a fantastic deal is tempting, you might not get what you wanted. You might even get a dangerous knock-off.

The internet allows scammers to advertise illegal counterfeit products as effectively as the real version. They may steal another seller's photos and post them on social media or their website.

Large marketplace platforms like Amazon and Walmart might not catch fake sellers before they scam you. According to a BBB report, nearly half of online shopping scams like counterfeits involve social media ads. Many of these marketplaces have policies that release them of liability from fraudulent sellers, so shopping on these websites is at your own risk.

While shopping online, consider reverse-searching the product images. The search results will include similar photos around the internet. You can use this tool to discover which other websites use the image.

You might find either the original seller or an authorized reseller of the product that caught your eye. The price may be less attractive, but the real seller will more likely ship the authentic product while protecting your information.

Check the Store Email Address or Text Number

Once you order a product from a store online, you'll usually get a confirmation through email or text message. Soon after, you may get a tracking number or shipping details once the seller sends the parcel.

Scammers can generate fake tracking codes and links. They send phishing messages to get their targets to share sensitive information while trying to check the order status. Whether you recognize the order or not, wait to click any tracking links until you verify the sender is legitimate.

Seek Legal Advice for Shopping Disputes

Online shopping can introduce many problems and legal questions. Some of these problems are minor enough to work out with the seller or report to a watchdog like the BBB Scam Tracker.

Some conflicts might raise complex legal factors. You may want to meet with a consumer protection attorney for these cases. A lawyer can examine the seller's duties under the law and help you recover from issues like transaction disputes or identity theft.

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