Be On Guard When Shopping For Holiday Gifts Online

Jeanette A. Tucker, Purvis, Trace, Merrill, Thomas A.  |  12/8/2006 4:17:56 AM

News You Can Use Distributed 12/07/06

Online shopping in the United States rises approximately 30 percent each holiday season, because it can save time, money and effort. But sizing up your finds on the Internet is a little different from checking out items at a mall or shop, says LSU AgCenter family economist Dr. Jeanette Tucker.

"Internet shopping is convenient, since it is always open – seven days a week, 24 hours a day," Tucker says. "Bargains also can be numerous online, and with the click of a mouse, you can buy practically everything you plan to put under the tree."

But Tucker says online shoppers also should take precautions to make sure they aren’t "taken" by fraudulent operators.

"Online shoppers should think before they click to prevent dishonest vendors from stealing their holiday fun," she cautions.

The LSU AgCenter expert also points out these tips from the Federal Trade Commission on safe online holiday shopping:

  • Know who you’re dealing with. Anyone can set up an online storefront. Confirm an online seller’s physical address and phone number in case you need to contact them. If you get a pop-up message from a seller while you are browsing asking for financial information, do not respond. Legitimate companies do not use this method.

  • Read between the lines. Read the seller’s description of the product closely, especially the fine print. Words like "refurbished," "vintage" or "closeout" may indicate the product is not in mint condition. Name-brand items with "too-good-to-be-true" prices could be counterfeits.

  • Calculate the costs. After checking Web sites that offer price comparisons, compare "apples to apples." Factor shipping and handling into the total cost.

  • Pay by credit or charge card. If you pay by credit or charge card, the Fair Credit Billing Act protects your transaction. Under this law, you have the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while the creditor investigates. In the event your credit or charge card is used without your knowledge, you generally are liable for no more than $50. Many companies do not hold consumers responsible for unauthorized charges. Some card issuers even provide additional warranty, return and/or purchase protection benefits for online purchases.

  • Check out the terms of the deal, especially refund policies and delivery dates. Can you return the item for a full refund? If returned, who pays the shipping costs or restocking fees? Confirm the expected delivery date for your order. If a delivery date is not provided, the law requires sellers to ship items as promised within 30 days after the order date. Be sure to find out if the gift recipient can return your gift. If so, ask the seller to include a receipt in the package.

  • Keep a paper trail. Print and save records of your online transactions, including the product description, price, receipt and copies of any e-mail exchanged with the seller. Check your credit card statements for unauthorized charges.

  • Never e-mail your financial information. E-mail is not a secure method of transmitting financial or personal information like credit card, checking account or Social Security numbers. If you begin a transaction and want to provide your financial information through a seller’s Web site, look for indicators that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or a URL for a Web site that begins with "https." Unfortunately, no indicator is foolproof, so be warned that some fraudulent sites have forged security icons.

  • Use up-to-date anti-virus and firewall software. Anti-virus software protects your computer from viruses that can destroy your data, hinder your computer’s performance or even allow spammers to send e-mail through your account. It scans your computer and incoming e-mail for viruses and works to delete them. Firewalls help keep hackers from stealing your personal information from your computer. If your operating system doesn’t include a firewall, install a software firewall or a hardware firewall – an external device that includes firewall software.

  • Check a company’s privacy policy before doing business. The policy should let you know what personal information a Web site collects, why it is collected and how they will use it. If you cannot find a privacy policy – or if you cannot understand it – consider taking your business elsewhere.
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