This holiday season, no matter what you're in the market for -- the latest high-tech gadget, a rare antique or even the tree you'll put it under -- you're likely to find it online. But virtual shopping, like traditional shopping, isn't without risks. Here are some tips from the Federal Trade Commission to help you shop safely online.
- Know your vendor.
If you're not familiar with a company's name or reputation - and especially if you learned of it from an unsolicited e-mail -- check up on it with the Better Business Bureau or the state attorney general's office in either your state or the state where the seller is based. It's wise to ask when you're ordering if the vendor is based overseas. If so, find out whether the company does business with U.S. customers, when you can expect the order to arrive, and who to contact if you're dissatisfied. Checking on the reputation of an overseas vendor can be more difficult than ordering from a U.S. vendor, so it's important to use a credit card to pay for your purchase. Even then, be aware that you might not have the same legal protections or be able to enforce your rights as easily as when the vendor is in the U.S.
- Protect your privacy.
Web sellers often collect information about you to market back to you or share with other companies. The result can be that you're bombarded with advertising you may not want. Ideally, shop from a vendor that posts its privacy policies online and offers you options about the use of your personal information.
In most cases, your password, credit card number and shipping information are the only information a vendor should require to take your order. Don't shop from a vendor that wants more information than you're comfortable providing.
- Guard your passwords.
If the seller requires you to use a password to make a purchase, don't use the same password you use to log on to your computer or network. Choose a different password every time you register with a new site.
- Pay with a credit card.
Other payment options simply don't offer the same consumer protections. Some credit card issuers offer extended warranties or other advantages for credit card purchase. And if the product doesn't arrive on time or if you aren't satisfied with it and choose to return it, you can dispute your vendor's charges. In addition, if you have an unauthorized charge on your credit card bill, your liability under federal law is limited to $50.
- Order only on a secure server.
Buy only from web vendors that protect your financial information when you order online. To confirm that you're on a secure server, look for an unbroken key or padlock at the bottom of the browser window. These symbols mean that the information you are sending is encrypted - turned into a secret code - for online transmission.
- Check delivery dates.
When you place an order, the vendor usually tells you when to expect delivery. A Federal Trade Commission rule requires sellers to ship items as promised, and no more than 30 days after the order date. If the seller can't ship the goods within the stated or 30-day deadline, the seller must notify you, give you a chance to cancel your order and send a full refund if you've chosen to cancel. The seller also has the option of canceling your order and refunding your money.
- Check shipping and handling fees.
Many online retailers add a shipping and handling fee to the price of an item based on where the order is to be shipped or the cost or weight of the goods. Online buyers generally can select from several delivery methods - standard/ground, two-day or overnight - at various costs. Be sure to designate which delivery method you prefer, because if you don't, the retailer may decide for you.
- Track your purchases.
When ordering online, print out and file any records related to the transaction. Save a printout of the web pages with the seller's name, address and telephone number; a description of what you ordered; the seller's legal terms; and any e-mail messages to or from the seller. If the date isn't on these printouts, add it yourself. These documents can serve as an insurance policy in case you don't receive your shipment or receive the wrong shipment.
The FTC also is interested in hearing from consumers. To file a complaint about a fraudulent business practice or to get free information on how to spot, stop and avoid one, call the FTC, toll-free, at 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357) or visit www.ftc.gov - click on "Consumer Protection." For more information about shopping online, visit www.consumer.gov