Ten Tips to Make Your Online Shopping Merry and Safe

December 15, 2011

By Marilynne Rudick

What’s not to like about holiday shopping online? You don’t have to line up for hours to score the biggest bargains or joust with fellow shoppers for parking spaces. And you don’t have to worry about getting the oversized TV into your undersized car.

A growing number of people do their holiday shopping online. Cyber Monday sales were up 22% from last year. But more than online sales are soaring. So is online fraud-bogus websites selling counterfeit goods, and scammers who steal your identity while you hunt for bargains.

Does this mean giving up online shopping this holiday season? No! The vast majority of sales are legitimate and hassle-free. But it does mean taking precautions. Here are ten tips for making your online shopping merry and safe.

1. If it’s too good to be true, it is. This year my email inbox is stuffed with unbelievable offers: New Xbox at 90% savings. iPads as low as $23.74 & FREE shipping! Don’t even click on these offers. You risk purchasing counterfeit merchandise or receiving no merchandise at all while the scammer harvests your credit card information.

2. Buy from merchants you know. Buy from well-known etailers such as Amazon or from companies whose brick and mortar stores you know. Watch out for disreputable etailers hiding behind a well-known brand. Yahoo! sells “storefronts” to small merchants that have no other affiliation with Yahoo!

3. Research merchants you don’t know. Maybe the best price on a product is from a merchant you’ve never heard of. Should you risk buying from an unknown company? Check them out before you buy.

— Use the Better Business Bureau’s online search tool. The BBB reviews and grades merchants. It lets you know if consumers have filed complaints.

— Use a website that provides customer reviews, such as epinions or Yelp.

— Pay close attention to customer feedback. If you’re shopping on eBay, look for merchants with close to 100% positive feedback and those that have earned top-rated seller status by providing superior service.

— Google [merchant’s name]+complaints to see if a seller has a history of poor customer satisfaction.

4. Make sure the transaction is secure. Take a look at the website’s URL. The prefix https instead of http indicates that your financial and personal data is encrypted, offering a measure of security.

5. Pay with a credit card. Most credit cards companies allow you to dispute a charge if the merchant does not perform as promised. The credit card company will contact the merchant and attempt to resolve the issue. If the company concludes that your complaint is valid, you won’t have to pay for the merchandise. If your card is stolen or if an unauthorized person uses it, your liability is limited.

6. Don’t pay with a debit card. With a debit card, payment is immediately deducted from your bank account, giving hackers and unscrupulous merchants access to your banking and financial information. Debit cards are not protected by federal law to the extent that credit cards are, so your out-of-pocket costs may be greater.

7. Don’t store your credit card information on a merchant website. It’s time-consuming to enter credit card information each time you make a purchase from a retailer that you use frequently. But if the merchant’s database is hacked, your financial information is compromised and you may be at risk for identity theft.

8. Don’t email financial or personal data. Remember that email is not secure. Don’t send credit card or bank information via email.

9. Download all computer system and anti-virus software updates. Don’t ignore the messages that ask if you’d like to download an update. These updates contain fixes to security problems and provide protection against new viruses.

10. Check out the etailer’s policies before you buy. Take a look at the store’s privacy policy. How does it protect your financial data? Does the merchant make your personal information available to third party vendors? What’s the company’s return policy? Is there a restocking fee for returned merchandise? How are gift returns handled?

Most online transactions are safe and hassle-free. With a few precautions, you won’t be the victim of an unscrupulous merchant and you won’t fall prey to identity theft.

Merry shopping!

Marilynne RudickAbout the Author: Marilynne Rudick writes about web tools and technologies in her WebOver50 blog.  She believes the web is wasted on the young, and her blog explains web apps– social networking, blogging, YouTube, and the treasure trove of new web tools—for people like herself: an over50 history major.

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