Volume 3 Number 50
December 11, 2006

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Are you shopping online for the holidays? U.S. online retail sales this holiday season will increase 23% over last year to reach $27 billion, according to Forrester Research. Almost one-fifth of the consumers surveyed say that the Internet will be the place where they shop the most during the holidays.Consumers of all ages find shopping for holiday gifts online to be convenient, fast and easy.

Shopping on line may be a convenience, but the consumer needs to protect and safeguard personal information while online.  The following shopping tips from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) can help you be a well-informed online consumer. 

  1. Know with whom you are dealing, as anyone can set up shop online.  Confirm the online sellerís physical address and phone number.  If you get an email or pop-up message from the seller asking for financial information, do not reply or click on the link in the message. Legitimate companies do not ask for information via emails or pop-ups.
  2. Read between the lines. Read the sellerís description of the product closely, especially the fine print. Words like refurbished, vintage or close-out may indicate that the product is less than perfect; brand-name items with too-good to-be-true prices could be counterfeit.
  3. Calculate the costs. Check out websites that compare prices, then judge by factoring shipping and handling into the total cost of the order. Then consider these costs in relation to your budget and compare with the cost of shopping locally.
  4. Pay by credit card. DO NOT SEND CASH under any circumstance. If you pay by credit card online, the Fair Trade Act may protect your transaction. Under this law, you have the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances. In the event that your credit card is used without your knowledge or permission, you generally are liable for no more that $50.00 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, like refund polices and delivery dates.  Can you return it for a full refund? Who pays for S&H or restocking fees?  What is the delivery date?  The law requires sellers to ship items as promised or within 30 days after the order date if no specific date is promised. Can the recipient return your gift? If so, ask that a receipt be included in the package.   
  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 emails you exchange with the seller. Read your credit card statement when received for unauthorized charges.
  7. Do not send your financial information by email.  Email is not a secure method for transmitting financial information like credit card, checking account, or Social Security numbers.  Make sure the sellerís website is secure, such as a URL that begins with https (the ĎsĒ stands for secure). Unfortunately, no indicator is foolproof; some fraudulent sites have forged security icons. 
  8. Use anti-virus software and a firewall and update them regularly.  This is necessary for anyone transmitting personal information and purchasing online as an active browser and email user.   Anti-virus software protects your computer from viruses, and possible spam emails sent through your account. A firewall will help keep hackers from using your computer. If you do not have these protective programs, purchase and install them or seek professional assistance to do so. 
  9. Check a companyís privacy policy before doing business. It should let you know what personal information the website operators are collecting and how they are going to use it. If you do not find a privacy policy or if you canít understand it, consider taking your business to another site that is more secure.