Hey, I'm a geek! Whenever I can, I like to shop online. I save time and trouble when I shop on the Internet. But I do take basic precautions.
Especially when hunting for obscure items or odd sizes, shoppers can find more variety online than they can find in local stores. Unfortunately, the quality of the merchants they encounter online also varies widely. Some may be nationally-advertised retailers with a local presence; others may be fly-by-night scammers.
Unfamiliar websites may even be contagious with malicious software. (Watch this video if you don't believe me: www.comodovision.com/home-computing/dangers-on-the-web/) You need security software: Comodo Internet Security—don't leave your home server without it!
The purchase decision is easy if the item is for sale by a business the shopper already knows and trusts. On the other hand, an unknown and untrusted seller may have a one-of-a-kind item. How can a shopper decide whether to trust the seller and proceed with the sale?
Is the Seller Trustworthy? What Does the Public Say?
Singular items are often sold on auction sites, which offer their own rating systems. Does the seller have a good rating at that site?
If the seller has his or her own website, visual symbols on the site may offer clues: a Better Business Bureau BBBonline symbol, for example, or an online ratings system such as UserTrust.
To check for online complaints against the merchant, open up a search engine. Type the domain name of the merchant plus the word "scam." For example, if the hypothetical merchant's website is known as www.size20pants.com, Google "size20pants.com scam." Do this again, but replace the word "scam" with "fraud." Are there many recent reports? Ideally there would be none, but even a stellar merchant or a patient customer may have a bad day.
Good indicators, or the lack of bad ones, can help shoppers decide whether or not to trust an online merchant with their money and their personal information.
Share Personal Information Prudently
Even if the item is a tremendous bargain, or not available anywhere else, online shoppers must still be cautious. If the merchant is dishonest, the shopper can lose more than the purchase price. The "merchant" may be an identity thief, or may intend to charge extra purchases to the customer's credit or debit card. Shoppers should try to entrust as little of their confidential information as possible to the site, just in case.
Many online purchases are abandoned when the shopper learns about additional charges. Before shoppers decide to purchase and enter personal information on the website, they should look for shipping and handling charges. That way they can make their final decision on the purchase before committing personal information to the site.
When dealing with an unknown website, a smart move is to choose not to share financial information directly with the site, but to use an online payment site such as PayPal. Wire transfers are not recommended; even Western Union's web site cautions against wiring money to strangers.
How Does the Merchant Protect Personal Information?
Once the shopper decides to buy, he or she enters a screen that asks for the shopper's name or customer number. As soon as that screen opens up, savvy shoppers look in the upper left hand of their browser. Ordinarily the left hand side of the browser address bar says "HTTP." However, at this point it should change. If the business is collecting private information and it accepts credit cards (even if the customer intends to pay via a payment site) the website must change its communications to encrypted or offer a comparable substitute.
Encrypted communications are scrambled so that no one but the shopper and the website can understand them. To show that the communication is encrypted, the browser address bar displays "HTTPS" (for Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure). If the browser address bar still says HTTP, shoppers should ask merchants how their information is being protected. Since encryption is the standard protection, shoppers should remain skeptical of any answer they do not understand.
The Sale's Not Over Till the Paperwork's Done
After the heady excitement of the purchase itself comes the less glamorous and equally important aspect of record-keeping. If the item arrives damaged, or does not arrive at all, shoppers will find it difficult to protest unless they kept thorough notes, whether printouts or screen shots, when they contact the merchant. Reputable and trustworthy merchants will work with customers to complete the sale satisfactorily.
Eternal vigilance is the price of great online shopping. Shoppers who scrutinize their online merchants with a keen eye beforehand, and who share their personal information only cautiously can find bargains and save time on the Internet.