Over the weekend, shoppers hunted for bargains by going to stores offering big discounts, but today is “Cyber Monday” and state officials are offering tips to protect you while buying online.
Over the past year, the state Department of Consumer Protection said it has received dozens of complaints about Internet sales.
“While people are generally more comfortable and careful about shopping online, a certain amount of caution is still very much needed,” Commissioner William Rubenstein said on Monday and offered 12 tips.
- Know who you're dealing with. Deal with well-known online sellers as much as you can. If you’re trying out a retailer you are unfamiliar with, at least confirm the online seller's physical address and phone number before you buy. It comes in handy if you have questions or problems later.
- Know what you're buying. Read the seller's description of the product and (even though it can be painful), the fine print.
- Check out the terms and conditions. Can you return the item for a refund if you're not satisfied? Who pays the shipping costs? Is there a restocking fee? Print and save records of your online transactions, including all emails to and from the seller.
- Buy gift cards only from sources you know and trust. Don’t buy cards from online auction sites -- the cards could be fakes.
- Be stingy with your personal information and use only secure sites. Don't email your credit card number, account number, or other financial information. Email isn't a secure way to transmit numbers.
- Don't give out your credit card or other financial information for an unsolicited “free” or “sale” offer of the newest tech gadget, a gift card, a seasonal job or a holiday vacation rental.
- Don't click on a link in an email. Legitimate companies don't ask for your financial information via email or pop-up message. That goes for free screen savers, e-cards or other seasonal downloads that often carry dangerous viruses. Keep your anti-virus and anti-spyware software current along with your firewall.
- Shop around. Having an item's manufacturer and model number can help you compare "apples to apples" among merchants. Some retailers match, or even beat, a competitor's prices. Many merchants are offering free shipping this year, but not all -- so factor the cost of shipping into the total cost. Or if you order online and pick up at the store, consider the cost of parking or public transportation.
- Avoid buying via public WiFi, if possible. Don't assume that public "hot spots" are secure. Unless you can verify that a hot spot has effective security measures in place, don’t send sensitive information like your credit card number over that network.
- Pay by credit or charge card. They offer the best consumer protections. Under federal law, you have the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances and withhold payment temporarily while the creditor is investigating. And if your card is used without your authorization, your liability generally ends at the first $50. Wiring money or using cash equivalents like a debit card, personal check, cashier's check or money order, can be risky. Use them only if you know the party you're doing business with.
- Monitor your financial accounts. After the holidays, check your bank and credit card statements regularly, making sure they reflect the charges you authorized.
For more information, see “Holiday Shopping Tips” at the Department of Consumer Protection’s website.