If you’re like most people, you’re thinking about scooping up some of those bargains we hear about between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Whether it’s Black Friday, cybermonday or just a random day between now and New Year’s Eve, there are plenty of retailers and e-tailers trying to tempt us to spend our money with them. Some of them are online, others have retail locations and some have both.
There are indeed some real bargains out there, but beware of any that are “too good to be true.” If you see something that costs a lot less than what any other seller charges, there is a chance that it’s some type of scam. You might not get the product at all or it might be used or missing parts. Even products you see on Amazon, might come from an unauthorized affiliate who is scamming you, according to Palmer Group CEO Shelly Palmer. “It might be a hijacked listing,” he told me on the ConnectSafely Report for CBS News Radio. “You have to carefully check the ship from and sold by info. If the seller or the shipper aren’t authorized there’s a good chance you won’t get the item.” If that happens to you, Amazon will refund your money, but you have to ask and that can be annoying and time consuming. There’s a link to the segment and Palmer’s blog post at ConnectSafely.org/radio.
When you shop online, there is also the possibility of stolen goods. Most sites that have affiliate or third-party sellers, including Amazon and eBay, have a rating system, so check the seller’s profile to be sure they’ve been around for a while and have good reviews. Be suspicious of any seller that is new to the platform. Although this won’t happen via legitimate sites, be very suspicious if the seller asks you to pay by cash, wired funds, gift cards or any other untraceable payment method.
The safest way to pay for anything you buy online is by credit card, followed by debit cards, PayPal or other well known online payment systems that offer fraud protection. Federal law requires credit card companies to suspend and investigate any potentially fraudulent charges and remove the charge if it’s found to be fraudulent. There are also protections for debit card transactions but there may be a delay before the money is deposited back into your account.
Be very careful about items that may not have all the parts or documentation. I was able to get a very good discount on a Fitbit via eBay by getting one without a band, charger or manual, but the seller was upfront about that so I got exactly what I expected. Years ago, I bought a camera online where the seller didn’t disclose it was missing the battery and charger. Fortunately, the seller was willing to take it back.
If you’re not familiar with the online merchant, do a little research to see if they’re legitimate. I think it’s great to patronize small online businesses, but Google them, read reviews, and if they list a phone number, maybe even call them to see if you’re comfortable how they are on the phone. Even legitimate merchants may have a few negative reviews, so read several of them to see what people think.
Make sure you are familiar with any return policies, including gift returns that might not include the original receipt. Many merchants have extended holiday returns until the end of January, but know the date, and don’t miss it if you decide to return the product. Keep the original product packaging (not necessarily the shipping box) and all cables, manuals and everything else that came in the box. Also, check to see who pays for return shipping, and if you do ship it back, makes sure you have proof such as a UPS, FedEx or post office receipt. When I return something, I take a picture of the shipping receipt and email it to myself in case I lose the paper receipt.
If you’re going to enter your credit card or any other personal information, make sure it’s a secure site by looking for the HTTPS in the address bar. The S stands for “secure,” which doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a reputable site but does mean that the data between you and the site is encrypted. If you’re shopping via an app, be certain it’s the app from the vendor and not one with a similar name. When in doubt, read reviews and ratings from the app store.
In past years, I warned readers to avoid shopping via public WiFi, but I’m no longer giving that advice. As the Washington Post has reported, the risk of having your data stolen on a public WiFi network is relatively low, especially if your device’s software is up-to-date and you’re shopping on a secure site with encrypted data. As one cybersecurity expert told the Post, “If I can phish your password from my chair in Moldova and have zero risk of going to jail, why would I get on an airplane and go to your local Starbucks?”
Be careful but relax, it will probably be fine
While I do urge a level of caution, the last thing I want to do is add to your holiday stress. The odds of everything being OK are very much in your favor as long as you take basic precautions and check your credit card or bank statements to make sure there are no unauthorized charges. If so, you’re almost certain to get your money back. Of course, I can’t tell you with 100% certainty that you won’t get ripped off, but I can’t guarantee that you won’t encounter a pickpocket at a shopping mall or a driver that bumps into your car. We can’t avoid all risk, but with a little bit of caution we can greatly minimize the chance of becoming a victim.
You’ll find more advice at ConnectSafely.org/shopping.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.