BBB Advice for Safe Online Shopping This Holiday Season

November 08, 2010

Letters Bargain hunters will undoubtedly be flocking to the Internet for holiday sales this year, and overall, online sales are again expected to increase this season as more shoppers forego the trip to the store and tick off the names on their “nice” list from the comfort of their homes. Unfortunately, your Better Business Bureau is warning that scammers will again be setting up shop online this year, using low prices to entice shoppers, but ultimately not delivering the goods. BBB is offering 10 tips for gift givers to help them stay safe and secure when shopping online this holiday season.  

comScore, Inc., reports that e-commerce spending covering the first 23 days (November 1 – 23) of the November – December 2007 holiday season totaled more than $9.3 billion. Online retail spending was strong on both Thanksgiving Day in 2007 (up 29 percent from 2006 to $272 million) and on “Black Friday” (up 22 percent to $531 million). For the 2008 holiday season, Barclays Capital forecasts that Internet sales will increase by a solid eight percent over last year, greatly outpacing a meager one percent growth in holiday sales expected at brick-and-mortar stores.

“Many consumers have come to feel extremely comfortable shopping online as part of their everyday lives and simply don’t consider the increased threat of identity theft or unscrupulous retailers during the holiday season,” said Steve Cox, BBB spokesperson. “While the online environment has become a thriving, trusted marketplace, e-commerce has also opened a door and created a ripe environment for scammers to set up shop online and start ripping people off.”

With more shoppers expected to head to the Internet this season, scammers know they can take advantage of consumers who are looking for bargains. Given the reach of the Internet, potential scams are not restricted to one area, or even one country. BBB of Western Ontario recently reported an online scam operating through the Web site BBB received complaints from consumers across the U.S. and Canada who paid for game consoles such as Playstation3s, Wiis, and Xboxes, but never received the items. The site required shoppers to pay via MoneyGram, a money wire service, and unfortunately that meant the money consumers paid was impossible to recover.

This year, BBB is offering a “Top 10 Online Shopping Tips” for holiday shoppers to help prevent being taken in by unscrupulous online retailers, scammers and hackers.

1. Protect your computer – A computer should always have the most recent updates installed for spam filters, anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and a secure firewall.

2. Use trustworthy Web sites – Shoppers should start with BBB to check on the seller’s reputation and record for customer satisfaction. Always look for a “trustmark” from BBBOnLine and click on that seal to confirm that it’s valid.

3. Protect your personal information – BBB recommends taking the time to read the site’s privacy policy and understand what personal information is being requested and how it will be used. If there isn’t one posted, it should be taken as a red flag that personal information may be sold to others without permission.

4. Trust your gut – Offers on Web sites and in unsolicited e-mails can often sound too good to be true. Consumers should always go with their instincts and not be afraid to pass up a “deal” that might cost them dearly in the end.

5. Beware of phishing – Legitimate businesses do not send e-mails claiming problems with an order or an account to lure the “buyer” into revealing financial information. If a consumer receives such an e-mail, BBB recommends picking up the phone and calling the contact number on the Web site where the purchase was made to confirm that there really is a problem with the transaction.

6. Confirm your online purchase is secure – Shoppers should always look in the address box for the “s” in https:// and in the lower-right corner for the “lock” symbol before paying. If there are any doubts about a site, BBB recommends right-clicking anywhere on the page and select “Properties.” This will let you see the real URL (Web site address) and the dialog box will reveal if the site is not encrypted.

7. Pay with a credit card – It’s best to use a credit card, because under federal law the shopper can dispute the charges if he or she doesn’t receive the item. Shoppers also have dispute rights if there are unauthorized charges on their credit card, and many card issuers have “zero liability” policies under which the card holder pays nothing if someone steals the credit card number and uses it.

8. Keep documentation of your order. After completing the online order process, there may be a final confirmation page or the shopper might receive confirmation by e-mail – BBB recommends saving a copy of the Web page and any e-mails for future reference and as a record of the purchase.
9. Check your credit card statements often – Don’t wait for paper statements; BBB recommends consumers check their credit card statements for suspicious activity by either calling credit card companies or by checking statements online regularly.

10. Know your rights – Federal law requires that orders made by mail, phone or online be shipped by the date promised or, if no delivery time was stated, within 30 days. If the goods aren’t shipped on time, the shopper can cancel and demand a refund. There is no general three-day cancellation right, but consumers do have the right to reject merchandise if it’s defective or was misrepresented. Otherwise, it’s the company’s policies that determine if the shopper can cancel the purchase and receive a refund or credit.

For more advice on staying safe online this holiday season, and to see reports on thousands of online retailers, go to