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Online Buying: Clicking with Confidence

There are some real advantages to buying from a local retail store. You get to walk out with the item you just purchased, you know who you are dealing with, and you’re supporting a business that keeps a store open in your community.

There may also be real advantages to buying online. It’s easy to place an order from a website, the prices may be low, and someone delivers what you ordered right to your address. But buying online also can carry some risks.

You can help reduce the risks of online shopping through some basic precautions:

  • Shop on sites you know. This is at the top of the list. While reputable websites can take significant time and money to develop and operate, it doesn’t take much effort to set up a less-than-reputable site. Make sure you know who operates the website, the seller’s physical address, and a phone number for customer service. It’s best to find a retail site through a web search, as opposed to clicking on a link that you received in an email, pop-up ad, or text. It’s possible that a link sent to you—even if it looks legitimate—may take you to a malicious site.
  • Understand exactly what you’re buying, how much it will cost, and when it’s supposed to arrive. Review the photo of the product, the item number, and the description. Make sure it’s clear whether the product is new, used or refurbished. Don’t forget to factor in and shipping and handling costs, if applicable. And make sure the seller provides you with an estimated delivery date. Don't forget the old saying that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If it seems too good to be true, trust your instincts and look elsewhere.
  • Review the seller’s return policies before buying. The site should list the seller’s rules for returns. If it doesn’t, that should be a cause for concern. Does the seller allow returns and, if so, what are the terms and conditions? Will the seller accept opened merchandise? Can you return merchandise to a store or do you have to ship it? Who pays for return shipping? And does the seller charge a restocking fee?
  • Make sure the site is secure. Do not provide financial or personal information unless you are confident the site is secure. A secure website begins with “https:” – the s stands for secure. You should see a padlock icon in the address bar of your browser, which indicates that the site is protected. If you are providing personal or financial information, do so only on a secure site—don’t email it. Emailing may not be secure.
  • Pay by credit card whenever possible. Paying by credit card protects you in ways you won’t get through a debit card or prepaid money card. The federal Fair Credit Billing Act ensures you can dispute credit card charges under certain circumstances, including incorrect or unauthorized charges, and charges for merchandise that wasn’t delivered as agreed.
  • Avoid sites that require wire transfers, and be wary of PayPal-only transactions. Requiring you to pay through money transfer services such as Western Union or MoneyGram are essentially asking you to send cash—when you wire the money, it’s gone. And be wary of a site that only accepts payment through PayPal, a popular online payment service that does offer certain protections for buyers and sellers conducting legitimate transactions. For example, it's a red flag if a seller requests you to designate your payment as a "gift" rather than a regular payment for goods. If you do this, you will lose the protections that PayPal provides for most purchases.
  • Your order should arrive as promised. The seller must ship ordered merchandise as promised, or within 30 days of the order if the seller didn’t promise a date. If the merchandise doesn’t ship within that time frame, you have the right to a full refund. If the seller revises the shipping date and doesn’t meet it, the seller must send you a second notice offering you the option to agree to the revised date or obtain a full refund. Be sure to save or print notices, emails and invoices regarding your transaction.
  • Be wary of purchase discounts tied to "free trial" offers. These are often buying club solicitations, which may lead to you getting billed automatically for an unwanted membership if you don't cancel by a certain date, or you getting charged in the future for goods or services you didn't authorize.
  • Review your financial statements. Make sure you were charged the right amount, and also make sure there aren’t any unauthorized charges. If you discover something wrong, contact your card issuer immediately.
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