Shopping online offers lots of benefits that you won't find shopping in a store or by mail. The Internet is always open — seven days a week, 24 hours a day — and bargains can be numerous online. With a click of a mouse, you can buy an airline ticket, book a hotel, send flowers to a friend, or purchase your favorite fashions. But sizing up your finds on the Internet is a little different from checking out items at the mall.
If you're buying items from an online retailer or auction website, OnGuard Online offers this advice to help you make the most of your shopping experience:
- Know who you're dealing with. Anyone can set up shop online under almost any name. Confirm the online seller's physical address and phone number in case you have questions or problems. If you get an email or pop-up message while you're browsing that asks for financial information, don't reply or click on the link in the message. Legitimate companies don't ask for this information via email.
- Know exactly what you're buying. Read the seller's description of the product closely, especially the fine print. Words like "refurbished," "vintage," or "close-out" may indicate that the product is in less-than-mint condition, while name-brand items with "too good to be true" prices could be counterfeits.
- Know what it will cost. Check out websites that offer price comparisons and then, compare "apples to apples." Factor shipping and handling — along with your needs and budget — into the total cost of the order. Do not send cash under any circumstances.
- Pay by credit or charge card. If you pay by credit or charge card online, your transaction will be protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act. Under this law, you have the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while the creditor is investigating them. In the event of unauthorized use of your credit or charge card, you generally would be held liable only for the first $50 in charges. Some companies offer an online shopping guarantee that ensures you will not be held responsible for any unauthorized charges made online, and some cards may provide additional warranty, return, and/or purchase protection benefits.
- Check out the terms of the deal, like refund policies and delivery dates. Can you return the item for a full refund if you're not satisfied? If you return it, find out who pays the shipping costs or restocking fees, and when you will receive your order. A Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rule requires sellers to ship items as promised or within 30 days after the order date if no specific date is promised.
- Keep a paper trail. Print and save records of your online transactions, including the product description and price, the online receipt, and copies of every email you send or receive from the seller. Read your credit card statements as you receive them and be on the lookout for unauthorized charges.
- Don't email your financial information. Email is not a secure method of transmitting financial information like your credit card, checking account, or Social Security number. If you initiate a transaction and want to provide your financial information through an organization's website, look for indicators that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser's status bar or a URL for a website that begins "https:" (the "s" stands for "secure"). Unfortunately, no indicator is foolproof; some fraudulent sites have forged security icons.
How to Report if You Have Been a Victim of an Online Shopping Fraud
If you have problems during a transaction, try to work them out directly with the seller, buyer or site operator. If that doesn't work, file a complaint with: