by Mary O. Foley
When Shawyn Porcaro found the $300 specialty scooter his child wanted on the Internet, he ordered it immediately. But when the scooter arrived at his Georgia home, “it looked like it was welded together by a kid,” Porcaro says. The unsafe assembly made the scooter impossible to use.
Porcaro tried to ship it back, but was told he had to pay for shipping — a $60 bill given the size and weight of the item. The website he bought from refused to give him a refund. And because he bought it with a debit card, Procaro says, he could not reverse the charges. His complaints to the Better Business Bureau went unresolved.
“If only I had checked out the company first,” Porcaro says. “I would have found out that the BBB already had had complaints about them.”
Millions of Americans flock to their computer screens as a way to find that special gift, get lower prices or avoid crowded shopping malls. Experts stress that consumers are happy with most online shopping experiences. “It is safe, and most consumers are aware of the need to consider security online,” says Sieglinde Friedman, vice president of strategy for the Electronic Retailing Association.
But the risks are there, especially when you shop at lesser known e-tailers. How can you make sure the websites you choose are reputable?
One of the most important things you can do is protect yourself before you ever start shopping, says Steve Salter, vice president of Better Business Bureau Online, the nonprofit consumer group. “For starters, protect your personal computer from intrusion,” he says. “Make sure you have a good firewall and good anti-virus software on your computer.” This will help keep hackers and scammers from tapping into your computer — and attempting to access your online banking and other data — without your knowledge.
Next, look for telltale signs that the website is legitimate. Here are 10 signs that the website you want to buy from is secure:
1. No pop-up ads
Be very careful about clicking on realistic-looking retail ads that pop up on your screen while you surf, says BBB Online’s Salter. Pop-ups may take you to a phony operation designed to steal your personal information. Meanwhile, most reputable retailers don’t use pop-ups: they know that customers strongly dislike them and that using them may turn customers away.
2. No unsolicited email
Reputable online retailers don’t send you solicitations via email unless you specifically signed up to get information from them or their partners. Be especially suspicious of unsolicited email from seemingly reputable sites like PayPal, eBay, or national banks — many are from “spoof sites” meant to fool you into giving personal information by mimicking other sites you may do business with. You can always contact the name-brand retailer separately or by phone to check whether the email was authentic.
3. Other shoppers had good experiences
Check with Better Business Bureau, which maintains a list of more than 38,000 online merchants that have agreed to the BBB’s best-business practices, including full disclosure of return and delivery policies and their costs. BBB member websites will carry an emblem with a yellow torch. Shoppers can also look at online customer feedback sites to see what others say. “Even some big brand-name websites can have very poor customer service,” notes Jane Driggs, president and CEO of BBB Utah in Salt Lake City. “Shoppers really should go on a search engine and look up what others are saying about a company before they buy.”
4. The site has a physical address or phone number
If they do, that’s a good sign that the business is for real. “Reputable companies will post their location and phone number so you can get in touch with them if there’s a problem,” says Salter. Call the number for reassurance.
5. There is a return policy
Reputable sites will spell out their return policy, including their shipping policies. If you can’t find this information on the site, shop elsewhere.
6. Prices are too low to believe
Everyone likes a bargain, but be wary of sites that offer products like tech gadgets for prices that are far lower than those of any other merchant. “They could be unlicensed products or stolen goods,” BBBOnline’s Salter warns. Knockoffs of brand-name merchandise are quite often peddled over online.
7. Credit cards are accepted
Credit cards give you more protection than debit cards. This is important if the wrong person gets your account number, says Friedman. Reputable sites will accept a variety of credit cards. That’s a good sign that they are legitimate, because they had to apply to the leading card issuing companies for approval. Suspicious sites may ask for checks or debit card numbers. Don’t shop at these sites.
8. The site features a padlock or unbroken key icon
Before giving that credit card number out, check that the site is encrypted. Encryption is a data-scrambling technology that keeps crooks from stealing your personal financial information. Look for icons such as a padlock or unbroken key at the top or bottom of your browser as a sign that encryption is used.
9. An “https:” starts the web address when you check out
Make sure that “https:” — not just “http:” — begins the URL at the top of your screen before when you start the checkout process. That final “s” means that a secure, encrypted connection is in place between your computer’s browser and the website you’re visiting. If you don’t see the final “s” in the URL when you reach checkout, stop the transaction.
10. The site has a privacy statement
Reputable sites will tell you how they protect your personal information and secure your credit-card data and whether they sell information about their customers to other companies. This is a disclosure statement and you should consider whether you feel comfortable with a retailer’s policy before buying.