Safety tips for online holiday shopping:Internet ScamBusters #57
With the holidays fast approaching, we felt it was important to discuss how you can have a safe holiday experience online, whether you're buying gifts or sending electronic greeting cards.
As you know, Internet ScamBusters is the #1 publication on Internet fraud and a public service. We just celebrated our seventh anniversary online earlier this month. ScamBusters has become a highly respected publication, with the mission to help educate people about Internet scams and fraud so they can better protect themselves.
Here are things we do NOT do:
- Name or publicly go after specific people or companies as committing fraud.
- Post to message boards or discussion lists accusing specific people or companies of committing fraud.
- Use the email address email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Attack people or businesses using anonymous email addresses.
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If you see posts from email@example.com, please realize that these are NOT from us. Anyone can create this kind of email address.
In addition, you may see posts on message boards that blast ScamBusters as a scam. These posts were authored by someone who doesn't understand that simply because an email address like firstname.lastname@example.org is used for a post, that it means any of us at ScamBusters might have written such a post.
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We are, of course, taking appropriate legal action regarding these posts. We just wanted to remind our subscribers of our mission and to assure you that ScamBusters has nothing to do with these posts.
OK. Let's begin...
Anyway, let's get started...
Safety Tips for Online Holiday Shopping
Online holiday shopping offers a myriad of conveniences over slogging through traffic, snow, lack of parking, and last-minute crowds. Sitting in the cozy comfort of your home, you can shop for gifts from around the world -- gifts you might not find in your local shopping mall.
At the same time, you need to be on your guard. Online shopping can have a few extra pitfalls, and there are always a few con artists out there waiting to separate you from your Christmas gift money.
Even when you deal with reputable sellers online, there's the possibility of misunderstandings and other problems.
Tis the season to shop online... and by following the tips below, your holiday will be a happy one.
Step 1: Evaluate the Seller
Is the Seller Well-Known?
If you're planning to purchase from a large online retailer like Amazon.com, you don't have to worry about being ripped off. You will, however, want to make sure you understand their policies (see below).
Note that some sites, like Yahoo!, sell 'storefronts' to individuals and companies who can sell items through them (Yahoo! Shops), but are not part of the Yahoo! company. You'll want to research these mini-shops.
If you're going to buy from a smaller retailer or one you're not familiar with, it's in your best interests to find out if they're worth doing business with.
That also goes for auctioneers with items you may be considering bidding on through eBay, for example.
Research the Seller's Credibility and Reputation
There are several tools you can use to research a seller's credibility and reputation. First, the Better Business Bureau has an online search tool atthat enables you to see if the seller has complaints lodged against it, or if it is a member of the BBB.
If you are planning to bid on an auction item, most auction sites (such as eBay) list feedback for the seller, including any positive and negative comments by bidders. Many auction sites also have a set of reference pages about auction rules and safety.
For eBay, see the SafeHarbor information at
You can also check out our past issue on auction fraud at
Epinions, a Web site which provides customer comments about products and services, has a section on user reviews of online stores and services at:
Lastly, if you can't find any information using these methods, you can try a search on Google Groups atto see if anyone has posted negative or positive comments about dealing with this seller. Just remember to take these comments with a grain -- actually, make that a pound -- of salt.
Here are some warning signs that the seller may not be on the level:
- The seller is using a free Web site service such as Geocities or Tripod, and does not have its own domain name.
- The seller does not provide any contact information such as a telephone number or physical mailing address.
- The seller's Web site is poorly-designed, or has broken links and images.
- The seller's sales, return, and privacy policies are not clearly stated. We'll discuss this more next.
Understand the Sales, Return, and Privacy Policies
It's very important that you know what the seller's policies are with regards to sales, returns, and privacy. This information should be available on all reputable sellers' Web sites, usually under the "Policies," "About Us," "Shipping," "Customer Support," or "Help" sections of the site.
Sales policies will tell you how much shipping will cost, whether the seller will ship to your area, what delivery and payment methods are available, among other things.
Return policies will tell you how the seller will deal with you if you need to return an item. Look carefully at the guarantee. Some sellers charge a 'restocking fee,' which is basically a percentage of what you paid for the item in the first place. Make sure you are comfortable with the return policy, in case something goes wrong.
Privacy policies have to do with what the seller does with the information it collects from you. All sellers will need to know at least the billing and shipping addresses, while others make you register with an email address and password. Make sure you are comfortable with the policies.
Even if you're sure you've found the best price on the Web, as Mom always said, "It pays to shop around." There are many Web sites that will allow you to type in a brand name or item number and will show you the prices from various online merchants.
For a list of price comparison Web sites, see Google's Consumer Price Comparisons
Note that not all price comparison Web sites will cover all online merchants, and that some may have a hidden agenda in promoting certain merchants over others. If you
see 'Sponsored Results' in a search results list, that means that the seller paid to have its listing appear above others. That's not a bad thing -- it just means you need to make sure you're getting the best deal.
Also, when you comparison shop, take into account shipping and handling fees, restocking charges, and any other costs. What may seem like a bargain may become very costly if the shipping's expensive.
Make Sure The Gift Will Arrive on Time
You want to make sure your gift will arrive in time for Christmas, Hanukah, Diwali, or Kwanzaa. Some sites, such as Amazon.com, will state right on the product page that the item will arrive by Christmas if you order by a certain date. Other sites will state how long it takes to ship the item.
If the seller does not give the expected shipping time, email or call them to find out. There's nothing worse than not finding that special gift under the tree.
Step 2: Make the Purchase Safely
You've done your homework, you've found the best price, and you're ready to buy. Here are some tips that will protect you from the moment you click the Checkout button to the happy day the gifts arrive.
Use a Credit Card, If Possible
This advice always seems counter-intuitive -- but it's very important.
You may be concerned about using a credit card over the Internet. But credit cards are safer than money orders, checks or cash payments, because, in the United States, at least, if you have a problem with an item you order, you'll only be liable for the first $50 you were charged.
The United States Fair Credit Billing Act enables you to dispute unauthorized charges, charges for goods or services that never arrived, among other things. For more information, see:
Make Sure the Transaction is Secure
The Web page where you enter your credit card information must be secure through SSL (Secure Socket Layer). Otherwise, it's much easier for a con artist to make off with your credit card number and expiration date.
You can tell if the Web page is secure by looking at the bottom left-hand or right-hand corner of your browser window. A gold lock or key icon indicates that the page is secure.
If you are not comfortable submitting your credit card information through the Internet, call the seller and give them the information over the telephone. Under no circumstances should you ever send credit card information through an email -- it's a bit like writing your Visa number on a postcard. 😉
Record the Transaction
Once you have submitted your credit card and shipping information, you will likely land on a "Thank You" page. This page usually contains a transaction receipt and transaction number. Print this page for your records.
In some cases, you will also receive a receipt by email. Again, printing the email and saving it is wise in case you have computer problems in the future.
Check the Goods When They Arrive
If the goods are being shipped to you, open and examine them as soon as they arrive to make sure the seller sent you the right goods, and that they are not damaged. If you specified that the goods be sent to another person as a gift, contact them and ensure that the goods are intact. In either case, if there is a problem with the product, you should contact the seller immediately.
Resources For Safe Purchases
The American Bar Association's guide to safe shopping:
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Guide to eCommerce and the Internet:
Step 3: Know What to Do if Something Goes Wrong
Contact the Seller
If there is a problem, contact the seller right away, preferably by telephone. Explain the problem and ask what they plan to do about it. Take notes of the conversation if you need to refer to it later.
Usually, sellers believe in the motto 'the customer is always right,' and will do their best to accommodate you and resolve the issue. If, however, they do not respond well, read on.
Don't Pay Your Credit Charge... Yet
Under the U.S. Fair Credit Billing Act we discussed above, you can only dispute charges that you haven't paid. If the seller is being difficult, contact your credit card company and explain the situation to avoid a late fee penalty. You'll most likely need to do this in writing.
If You Bid on an Auction, Contact the Auction Site
As mentioned above, auction sites usually have an extensive set of information you can review to find out what your legal recourse is if you've had problems with an auctioneer. You should also contact the auction site's customer service to let them know of the problem.
Who to Contact Next
If you still cannot get satisfaction from the seller, contact the following agencies:
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) -- You can file a complaint online at:
(Note that the FTC does not resolve complaints, but may use them to start fraud investigations.)
The office of the State Attorney-General where the seller is located. You can find a list of contacts for the Attorneys-General at:
One last tip -- which may be the most
important: NEVER purchase from a spam email you receive. At least 99.99% of
these emails are scams. So, if you avoid ever responding to spam, you've done
the single most important thing you can do to avoid getting taken.
Remember one of our favorite sayings: "If it's spam, it's a scam."
Electronic Greeting Cards - Fun or Fraud?
We've all enjoyed sending and receiving virtual greeting cards through services such as Yahoo! and Blue Mountain.
Unfortunately, now, some companies are using the popularity of these greeting cards for a much different purpose.
Some people are using e-greetings to install spyware (software that collects information on what you're doing on the Internet and sends it back to them), marketing software that bombards you with popups, or viruses that send 'greetings' to everyone in your email address book.
One company even boasts that you can purchase its software, create an e-greeting, and send it to an unsuspecting victim so you can spy on them around the clock. Presumably, this is to catch cheating spouses, or monitor children's Internet activities. But to us, it's a very disturbing invasion of privacy.
As far as we can tell, these disreputable e-greetings are sent as attachments -- usually with an .EXE extension. Most of them will only work on Windows, so Mac and Linux users are safe for now.
We don't want to tell you not to open any virtual greeting card -- the ones that link to Yahoo! or Blue Mountain seem safe. But beware any attachments promising animated Santas or other holiday fun -- you may just get a 'gift' you can't easily return.
For more information on this scam, see:
We wish you a very happy and healthy holiday season. We'll resume publication after the New Year.