Safe holiday online shopping tips

by Larry Magid

When you see a great deal online, make sure you examine the fine print. The biggest “gotcha” is usually shipping costs. Many online merchants will offer free shipping during the holidays, but some will add substantial fees that could wipe out any savings.

Be aware of sales tax and any other fees. Depending on whether the merchant has an in-state “presence,” it may or may not add sales tax — Amazon does, along with all merchants that have brick-and-mortar stores in California. California residents are supposed to declare any tax-free online purchases on their state tax returns and pay the sales tax, though I’m not sure how many people actually comply with that law.

Too good to be true?

If a deal seems too good to be true, it likely is. I once fell for a seemingly great offer on a camera only to find out that it didn’t come with a battery or manual. Fortunately, they were willing to take it back and give me a refund, which brings up another issue: Be sure you understand the merchant’s return policy. Merchants usually allow 30 days to return an item, but the period could be shorter, longer or nonexistent. Many online merchants extend their return policy this time of year to give people plenty of time after the holidays to return items, but be sure to check

Get it on time

Also check delivery dates, especially if you’re buying a Christmas or Hanukkah gift that you want delivered on time. Most of the major online merchants will post their deadlines for general, free or expedited shipping as we get closer to Christmas. Last year, Amazon’s free shipping deadline was Dec. 18th, but it still offered one- or two-day shipping options until Dec. 23.

Do a little research

I’m always a bit nervous when dealing with online merchants that I don’t know, so if I see a deal from an unknown source, I do a little research to see what people say. If nothing comes up either way, I’ll add the word “scam” to their name in a search query, which sometimes brings up negative reports. However, it’s important to remember that just about any merchant — even well-known and mostly trusted ones — are going to have some public complaints, so think carefully before rejecting a merchant based on one or two bad reviews.

Use credit card if possible

If possible, it’s best to use a credit card when shopping online: The federal Fair Credit Billing Act limits your liability to $50, and most credit card companies will even waive that amount. You also have some protections with most debit cards, but, because they deduct money from your account the moment you make the purchase, it’s up to you to convince them to put the money back into your account. Credit card companies will suspend charges while they investigate fraud complaints, but if they decide it’s not fraud, you’ll eventually be charged.

Check those online statements

The Federal Trade Commission urges consumers to print or save records of all online transactions, including the price and product description. The FTC also recommends that consumers check their credit card statements to make sure they were charged the correct amount. I frequently log in to my credit card accounts on the Web to check for recent activity, which, in many cases, is posted the moment your card is charged.

Holiday scammers

The holiday season always brings out scammers, including “phishers.” Be very careful before clicking on any links you get in email that looks like it’s coming from a legitimate online retailer, a bank or maybe even a government agency. It could be a phishing attack designed to steal your logon credentials or other personal information. The safest bet is to type the Web address manually into your browser. Be especially leery of any links that don’t end with company’s actual domain name; for example, any links to a legitimate Chase site will end in “”

And don’t forget to protect yourself when shopping offline. Credit card scams and hacks are on the rise so, again, check your recent activity frequently during the holiday season report any suspicious activity. I was reminded of this the other day when my bank called to tell me that my Visa card was used to buy gas and groceries in Georgia. I haven’t been to Georgia since I got that card, so it probably resulted from a merchant being hacked.

Finally, as you try to minimize the risk of online shopping scams, don’t forget that all shopping has risks. Personally, I’m just as worried about pickpockets in malls and fender benders in parking lots as I am about online scams.

Advice from FTC

Here are some additional tips that the Federal Trade Commission published in 2011 that still apply

Set a Budget. Create a gift list and check it twice to help you stay on track and not overspend.

Decide What Matters. Especially if you’re buying gadgets, know what your “must-have” features are vs. those that are just nice to have.

Use Search Engines. Type a company or product name into your search engine with terms like “review,” “complaint” or “scam” to find out more about it.

Read Reviews Online. Reviews from other people, experts, and columnists can give you an idea of how a product performs. But don’t put all of your trust in one review.

Consider Reputation. A brand’s reputation for quality and good customer service can really pay off.

Check Comparison Shopping Sites. They connect to many retailers selling the same product, sometimes at significantly different prices. Keep shipping costs in mind.

Consider Coupons. Some companies offer discounts via e-mail, and some websites collect and list codes for free shipping and other discounts. Search for the store with terms like “discount,” “coupon” or “free shipping.”

Read Return Policies. Not all stores have the same rules. Some charge fees for return shipping or restocking things like electronics.

Decide How to Pay. When you shop online, credit cards can offer extra protections.

Look for a Secure Checkout. Does the website start with https (the “s” stands for secure) when you’re checking