The Internet is the world’s shopping mall, but be aware: Virtual pickpockets lurk everywhere. Of course, you can find legitimate online vendors who offer quality merchandise, generous return policies, “in-store security” and ample privacy. You just need to know where to shop online safely, what to look for and how to get in and out with a good deal and your dignity intact. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
Shop Online Safely at Stores You Know
Start by shopping in stores you know. J.C. Penney or Wal-Mart, for example, have online stores you can trust (www.jcpenney.com, www.walmart.com) with the same make, model and quality of products you’ll find in their brick-and-mortar stores.
Make sure any such sites are, in fact, the genuine Internet counterparts to those stores. To do that, go to http://hoovers.com/free/, which lists companies and provides quick information about them. Use the search engine at the top and click “Search Now” to find J.C. Penney, for example. Click on “J.C. Penney Company, Inc.” in the search results. At the top of the next page, the website address is listed.
To validate a store you don’t know, you should also check its name in Hoovers. If it’s not a public company, you should check the store website for a physical address, e-mail, phone numbers and toll-free numbers, all signs of legitimacy.
Look for a link to an “about” page, which should discuss the company’s history. There may be logos that demonstrate approvals from organizations such as the Better Business Bureau (BBB). The appearance of logos from “eTrust” or “VeriSign” mean the site has taken extra care to provide a secure and private purchase process.
Respectable companies clearly outline their security, privacy and return policies; links to those are generally on the very first page (usually at the bottom or top). Read those policies carefully to determine what the company does to secure transactions as well as your privacy.
Many stores have return policies aimed at to keeping you happy and returning. Many will allow returns of online purchases at their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Locate the policies at each store you plan to shop at, print them out and call or e-mail customer service with any questions you may have before you buy.
Sites That Can Help
Search the BBB OnLine for stores that are members. Search Google for sites and brands and for the store’s name. If you find thousands of links to the store or perhaps even millions, this means they’re not hiding from anyone, which can be a good sign. If you find nothing negative, that’s a good sign, too.
Check out http://groups.google.com, and look for the store name in the search field. If the store is a scam, you’ll likely read people saying so, and you might even find examples of spam (unwanted e-mails) that people have received.
You should check out the store at evaluation sites, such as www.resellerratings.com. Click on Store Ratings and search for the store name. Reviews and ratings come from fellow consumers. A store with more ratings means more people have had experiences with it. Likewise, research the quality of new (or new-to-you) brands. Go to www.bizrate.com and type in the name of any brand in the search field at the top. On the results page, click on an item and check the reviews.
While you’re at it, make sure you’re getting the best price online. Sites such as www.bizrate.com and Google Products help compare prices for the same items from different online stores. While those sites don’t usually include comparisons from invalid stores, you should still check each store out individually.
Make Safe Purchases
When you’re ready to make a purchase, look at the site’s FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), which may include information about the purchase process. That will give you a better idea of what you’ll experience before you jump in.
While shopping at some sites, you will see images of shopping carts that you can click on like buttons. You should use these to add items to your purchase list or to check the items in your “cart” to see what you have decided to purchase (see Figure 1).
If the items or purchase amounts aren’t what you want, you can edit your shopping cart before you finalize your purchase, or simply close the website (click the “X” in the upper-right, see Figure 2) to ensure you don’t commit to the wrong purchases.
You should use your credit card when shopping online for extra protection. Credit cards automatically limit the amount of your liability, usually down to nothing, if problems result from a purchase. Call your provider to see what services it offers to help you shop online safely, allowing you to protect your money, privacy and identity.
If you don’t like the idea of using a credit card online, you can still shop through the Internet. Call the store and ask if it accepts payment by check by mail or look for this information on its site. Customer service should be able to walk you through the process of shopping online and completing the transaction with a paper check.
Avoid online phonies and fly-by-nights. If an online vendor doesn’t make you feel comfortable every step of the way, it may be suspect. Watch for deals that sound too good or requests for payment outside the usual methods or apart from the online shopping cart (credit cards, PayPal or checks are typical payment methods with genuine vendors). PayPal is a service that automates payment through a direct link to your bank account.
The most reputable stores deliver invoices online immediately, on screen and by email. Before making a purchase, call the store to verify that it will provide immediate invoices for your purchases.
A happy shopping season includes keeping your peace of mind intact. Assess online stores from several angles before making a purchase. Once satisfied everything is above-board, enjoy this new way of shopping — without crowds, shelling out gas money or waiting on lines!