Beware of Cyber Grinches

December 11, 2011

By Edward Johnson

You cannot beat the convenience and comfort of shopping online.  Comparing prices and researching products is also a breeze.  Let’s face it, in today’s busy world logging on to your computer is easier than going to the mall.  No crowds, no driving in circles to find a parking spot and you can even shop in your pajamas if you wish.  However, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) warns that online shopping is also wrought with cyber danger.

Case in point, the Justice Department recently shut down 150 web sites selling counterfeit products.  The web site’s target?  Holiday shoppers.  Bogus products may be the least of your worries though.  As the FTC will attest, identity theft is also rampant.  These problems are simply the tip of the iceberg.  In addition, the BBB has been beating the drum about online refunds and exchanges, delivery issues, false advertising and hidden fees for years.

While the dangers can be enough to make the a trip to the mall appealing, if you do shop online the BBB recommends the following top 10 tips to help fight 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. Shop on trustworthy websites – Shopping only on the sites of merchants you know and trust is another critical means of ensuring your online safety. However, if you decide to order from a web site you have never patronized before, it’s a good idea to spend a few minutes investigating the site. For starters, reliable Internet retailers always include a business address and contact telephone number on their sites, as well as information about site security, their return and refund policies, shipping practices and privacy policy. Shoppers should start at to check on the seller’s reputation.
  3. Protect your personal information – The 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 a privacy policy isn’t posted, take that as a red flag that personal information may be sold to others without permission.   Another critical step in securing your personal and financial data is to provide only the information necessary to complete the transaction — and no more. Social Security numbers are not required to complete an online purchase and consumers should never provide this information.
  4. Beware of deals that sound too good to be true – Offers on websites and in unsolicited e-mails can often sound too good to be true, especially extremely low prices on hard-to-get items. 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, the BBB recommends calling the contact number on the website 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 of the browser for the “lock” symbol before paying. If there are any doubts about a site, the BBB recommends right-clicking anywhere on the page and select “Properties.” This will let you see the real URL (website 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, you can dispute the charges if you don’t receive the ordered item. Your also have dispute rights if there are unauthorized charges on your credit card.  Many card issuers have “zero liability” policies under which the card holder pays nothing if someone steals the credit card number and uses it. If you are going to shop on classifieds web sites like Craigslist, never wire money and only buy locally where you can see the item before you hand over your money.
  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 – the 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; the BBB recommends consumers check their credit card statements for suspicious activity by either calling credit card companies or by looking at 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, the company’s policy determines if the shopper can cancel the purchase and receive a refund or credit.

Edward Johnson is president & CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving the eastern and northeastern Pennsylvania region.