No matter what you’re shopping for – the latest high-tech gadget, an antique, or even the tree – you’re likely to find it on the Internet. But virtual shopping has risks.
These tips from the Federal Trade Commission and Northeast COMBAT will help you shop safely online.
If you’re not familiar with a company’s name or reputation, and especially if you learned of the company through an unsolicited e-mail, write COMBAT at “Consumer Forum” for a reputability check or contact the state attorney general’s office or Better Business Bureau in the city where the company is based.
When ordering, ask if the vendor is based overseas. If so, find out whether the company does business with U.S. customers, when the order will arrive, and who to contact if a problem arises. Confirming the reputation of an overseas vendor is more difficult than with a U.S. vendor, so it’s important to order by credit card. 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 United States.
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 with a vendor that wants more information than you are comfortable providing.
If the seller requires you to use a password for 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.
Other payment options don’t offer the same protections as provided by credit cards. Some credit card issuers offer extended warranties or other advantages for credit card purchases. Most importantly, if the product doesn’t arrive on time or you aren’t satisfied and choose to return it, you can dispute the charges through your credit card company. In addition, if you have an unauthorized charge on your bill, your credit card liability under federal law is limited to $50.
Buy only from vendors who protect your financial information when ordering online. To confirm that the server is secure, 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 (converted to a secret code) for online transmission.
When you place an order, ask when you may expect delivery. Federal Trade Commission rules require items to be shipped 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 cancel.
Many online retailers add shipping and handling fees based on where the order is to be shipped or the cost or weight of the goods. Online consumers can generally select from several delivery methods, standard ground, two-day, or overnight, at various costs. Be sure to designate which delivery method you prefer or the retailer may decide for you and the item could arrive too late for Christmas.
Finally, when ordering online, print out and file any records related to the transaction.
Consumer Forum is a collaborative effort of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast COMBAT. Send questions to Consumer Forum, Bangor Daily News, PO Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. COMBAT is a nonprofit organization with annual dues of $10. For membership information, write to the above address.