Informed Online Shopping Ensures a Secure Holiday Season

Online shopping provides a convenient way to save time and money during the holiday season. Over the past few years, consumers have increased their use of online shopping during the holiday season.

In August, the Department of Commerce Census Bureau estimated U.S. retail e-commerce sales to be $33.6 billion for the second quarter of 2007. Already, industry projections suggest that online consumer spending will reach $200 billion by the end of the year, up from $170.8 billion last year.

To ensure a successful buying experience, the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) encourages consumers to think carefully and make informed choices when shopping on the Internet.

NAAG and the Federal Trade Commission offer the following to avoid becoming a victim of online scams and identity thieves:

  1. Know who you’re dealing with. Confirm an online seller’s physical address and phone number in case you need to contact the seller. Don’t reply or click the links in email or pop-up messages from sellers that ask for financial information. Legitimate companies don’t ask for this information via email or pop-ups.
  2. Know what you are 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; name-brand items with “too good to be true” prices could be counterfeits.
  3. Don’t email your financial information. Email is not a secure method of transmitting financial or personal information such as your credit card, checking account or Social Security number. If you begin a transaction and want to provide your financial information through an organization’s website, look for indicators that the site is secure, such as 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.
  4. Pay by credit or charge card. Do not send cash under any circumstances. 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. In the event your credit or charge card is used without your knowledge and permission, you generally are liable for no more than $50 in charges per card. Many companies do not hold consumers responsible for any unauthorized charges made online, and some card issuers may provide additional warranty, return and/or purchase protection benefits.
  5. Check out the terms of the deal, such as refund policies and delivery dates. By law, retailers - including e-tailers - are required to ship an order within the time stated on their website (or in their ads) or at the time the order is placed. If a company doesn't promise a time, it must ship the order within 30 days after receiving it. And if the company is unable to ship within the promised time, it is required to say so and allow the consumer to agree to the delay or to cancel the order and receive a prompt refund.
  6. Keep a paper trail. Print and save records of your online transactions, including the product description and price, the online receipt and copies of any email you exchange with the seller. Read your credit card statements as soon as you receive them. Contact the credit card company immediately if you see any unauthorized charges.
  7. Use anti-virus software and a firewall and update them regularly. Anti-virus software protects your computer from viruses that can destroy your data, slow your computer’s performance, cause a crash or even allow spammers to send email through your account. It scans your computer and incoming email for viruses, deleting them. Your anti-virus software should update routinely with antidotes to the latest “bugs” circulating through the Internet. Firewalls help keep hackers from using your computer to send out your personal information without your permission. Think of a firewall as a guard, watching for outside attempts to access your system and blocking communications to and from sources you don’t permit. If your operating system doesn’t include a firewall, get a separate software firewall, or install a hardware firewall — an external device that includes firewall software.
  8. Check a company’s privacy policy. It should let you know what personal information the website operators are collecting, why they collect it and how they’re going to use it. If you can’t find a privacy policy — or if you can’t understand it — consider taking your business to another site that’s more security-conscious and customer-friendly.
  9. Get satisfaction. If you have an unsatisfactory shopping experience, the best course of action is to contact the retailer. Look for an address to write to or a phone number to call. If you've never heard of the seller, check on its location and reputation with the Better Business Bureau or the state attorney general's office.

Your state Attorney General is an excellent resource if you have questions regarding shopping safely online. Many Attorneys General can provide you with brochures, identity theft kits, and tips to protect your computer equipment and prevent future damage to your identity, your credit and your safety.

Attorneys General also offer Consumer Alerts to inform the public of unfair, misleading or deceptive business practices. Across the country, a number of Attorneys General offices have sponsored “Shred-A-Thons,” allowing consumers to shred old documents in an effort to prevent identity theft. Many Attorneys General regularly host consumer education forums at schools, civic group meetings and other venues to ensure that information is readily available, especially for the most vulnerable populations.

If you feel you have been taken advantage of by an online scammer, report it immediately to your state Attorney General or the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov.

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