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Tips for Safe Online Shopping

Despite the various scams and pitfalls associated with Internet-based shopping, safe online shopping can be achieved by being informed and taking certain precautions. Some of the risks involved with online shopping also are present in the physical world. For example, someone may steal your credit card information by hacking into the server of an online retailer; but an unscrupulous waiter at a restaurant may copy your credit card number and forge your signature while processing your payment.

One advantage of shopping only at local, brick-and-mortar retailers is that they depend on maintaining a positive image in the community, and are thus more likely to provide a high level of service. But since consumers have access to such a vast number of retailers online, the odds of running into trouble are multiplied. Still, savvy consumers often can find better prices and more selection online. 

This article offers suggestions and warnings intended to help online shoppers experience safe online shopping experiences. See Problems with Online Shopping and Steps You Should Take in Preventing Identity Theft for related tips and suggestions.

Safe Online Shopping: Stick with Trusted Companies

If you have shopped in-person at a particular department store for most of your life and trust the company, it is probably safe to assume that you will not run into any serious problems when shopping through its website. And while the Internet has allowed small vendors in all corners of the globe to thrive, thus providing you with more shopping selections and competitive pricing, be cautious of small retailers you either haven't heard of or which are located in a foreign country.

Before clicking on the dotted line, you can check out reviews of businesses at the Better Business Bureau, filtering your results by either "city and state" or "postal code." Additionally, the BBBOnline Reliability Seal Program allows consumers to click the BBB icon on the company's Web site to learn more about the business. Also, many online retailers allow customers to post reviews; but keep in mind that some businesses may either delete negative reviews or post fake positive comments.

And when you check out, make sure you have a secure connection when paying by credit card (see Paying Online for Goods for details). If you don't see the little padlock symbol in your browser, you may not be engaging in safe online shopping.

Be Wary of Pressure Tactics

One important tip for those who want to shop safely online is to never be swayed by pressure from the vendor, either at the Web site or from a customer service representative. If you do feel pressured, it may be best to just hold off on the purchase until you feel more comfortable making a decision and have had time to think about it. Sometimes the online vendor is indeed offering you something better, but you probably should not feel as if it's "now or never." Often, such pressure tactics are used to get someone to make an unwise purchase or spend more than they planned to.

It may also be a good idea to check out any items you are planning to buy online at a brick-and-mortar store first, so you can actually see what you would be getting.

Watch Out for Fraud

Safe online shopping can be undermined by fraud, which comes in many different forms. The following should raise red flags that the online vendor is potentially involved in shady behavior:

  • "Now or Never": As mentioned earlier, such pressure tactics often are aimed at convincing a customer that they would be crazy not to take advantage of a given deal or sale. Usually, a reputable company will give you the time you require to make an informed purchase.
  • "It's Free": Often, goods advertised as "free" are just introductory offers that end up costing quite a bit later. For example, you may be offered a free pound of coffee; but then your credit card may be charged for each additional pound of coffee periodically mailed to your house.
  • "No Mail Please": Sellers asking buyers to pay by check or money order, but through a private delivery service, may be attempting to circumvent postal fraud laws.
  • "Get Rich Quick": Offers that claim instant riches are nothing new, but have proliferated over the Internet. If it is a fraudulent business, the con artist will be the one getting rich off of his or her victims.
  • Excessively Flashy Website or Email: 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 use of dollar signs and exclamation points, or email messages with the same over-the-top elements.

Safe Online Shopping & the Importance of Privacy

This is covered in greater depth in Privacy and Online Shopping, which discusses the various ways a consumer's privacy can be compromised. Make sure the retailer explains its privacy policy upfront (often, clicking to "agree" is a condition of completing the transaction); be aware of "cookies" that track your Internet whereabouts; do not type sensitive data into a shared computer (such as one in a library or Internet café); and only provide that data which is necessary for completing your order.

Also, make sure you use strong passwords and change them periodically.

Make Sure You Understand the Retailer's Warranty and Return Policies

This is true for both online and brick-and-mortar establishments. Most purchases come with an implied warranty, meaning it is guaranteed to perform as advertised, but return policies may include a restocking fee or other such conditions. Some vendors do not offer refunds, only exchanges for other items.

See Product Warranties and Returns for more related articles.

Avoid Bogus Websites

The scam known as "spoofing" involves the use of a website that looks just like the legitimate one, only with a different Web address. Often, a link to the fake site will be sent out via email as spam in hopes that a few people will unwittingly try to buy something or share sensitive data. It may be very similar to the real site, to attract people who mistype the address, or it may be completely different but hidden within a hyperlink. The key in such scams is to give users the false sense that they are having a safe online shopping experience.

Make sure you double-check the URL to make sure it is the legitimate website before purchasing anything or sharing sensitive data. 

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