E-Shopping Basics
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E-Shopping Basics

On the whole, shopping online is easy and reliable. But posting personal information, shopping by credit card, and browsing without seeing the actual merchandise can make anyone nervous. These tips will turn you into a seasoned, safe e-shopper in no time.

Getting Started

With such a world of mail-order opportunities to choose from on the Internet, how do you find what you want? And are some things better to buy than others?

The best way to get started is to buy something that's a known quantity, such as name-brand electronics, books, CDs, and DVDs. That way, you know it's going to be the same product no matter where you buy it.

Next, how do you find the merchant who has what you want at the best price? Start by looking at the Web sites of retailers you're familiar with. Then compare the prices you find with less familiar retailers with the help of comparison-shopping sites like Shopfind.com, eShop.com, or Buy.com. Type in the item you're looking for to get a list of sites that carry it and the various prices. Try to shop only at Web sites that are professionally designed and that meet certain criteria that tell you they are a legitimate business. (See the next page, "Spending Your E-Dollars Safely.")

The Extras Add Up

As you shop, remember that additional charges like shipping and handling may drive up your price. Calculate shipping costs at the site or call the site's toll-free number for a quote. On the other hand, the total price may be lower than you expect thanks to free shipping, rebates, first-time-buyer offers, or frequent-purchase plans.

As you venture into merchandise that is less predictable, like clothes, be sure to look at the site's return policy. Can you get a full refund? Is there a time limit? Does the site charge a restocking fee? These policies should be posted clearly, but if you can't find them, call or e-mail the company. And always print out a copy of each purchase order with a confirmation number, and file it.

Under federal law, a company should ship your order within the time it advertises. If a deadline is not given, the law says the company should ship the product within 30 days. Companies must get your approval for delays or let you cancel the order for a refund.

Spending Your E-Dollars Safely

For the most part virtual credit-card transactions are as safe as -- or safer than -- the real world (where thieves can find account numbers on receipts in the trash). But some crimes do occur on the Web. And with all the personal information Web sites collect, such as mailing and e-mail addresses, many online shoppers are concerned about privacy as well.

To save yourself hassles, the best thing you can do is try to find out with whom you're doing business. Even if you already know a company, their new e-stores may have different policies for issues like returns. And sometimes, of the items you want can be found only at a site you've never heard of. Luckily, credit card companies have a policy of not holding fraud victims responsible for anything over $50 charged without the cardholder's consent. And some sites even offer to pay that initial $50 if anything happens with your order.

If other individuals have access to your computer, don't allow any shopping site to save your registration information ("Remember me" or "Remember my password" options). And look for a few key signs as you shop online:

Symbols of Trust

Always look for a seal from an independent monitor -- usually at the bottom of the Web site's home page -- which indicates that the merchant's practices are being monitored by a third party with no ties to that company. The top watchdogs include the Better Business Bureau Online (BBBOnLine), TRUSTe, and VeriSign.

Click the seals to make sure they're real and not just copied from some other site, advises BBBOnLine director Steve Salter.

Clicking the BBBOnLine Reliability Seal should take you to the company's reliability report. Thousands of sites have been awarded this seal, which means the site has been in business for at least one year, has been evaluated for truth in advertising and transaction trustworthiness, a Better Business Bureau representative visited the company's physical office, and the proprietors have agreed to participate in dispute-resolution procedures. Their Privacy Seal means the site will safeguard the information you give them.

The TRUSTe symbol indicates that the site discloses which personal information is being gathered and how it will be used and shared with others. The site will also offer you choices about how your personal information is used and how you can correct inaccuracies.

VeriSign has issued millions of digital certificates to sites verified to have secure servers. Click on the VeriSign seal for information about the site, and make sure it's consistent with information provided by the site.

Secure Ordering

When you get to the point of entering your credit card information, check the lower-left corner of your screen for a locked padlock or key icon. This means that you are on a secure server and the page with your personal information was encrypted as it was loading.

Normally when you visit a Web site, text and images are sent directly between the Web site's computer and your computer. Anyone with enough knowledge of how the Web works can access the information that is sent back and forth. Encryption software jumbles the data -- your credit card number, for example -- into a special code, so that only authorized personnel with the proper decoding software can access it.

The technology of encryption software was until recently considered a state secret by the United States government, but its export to 23 countries is now approved. (Many overseas companies have developed their own brand of secure server software as well.)

If you are placing an order and you see an open padlock icon in the lower left corner, or no padlock or key at all, the page is not encrypted; don't place an order. Your browser may also send you a warning alerting you to a lack of security; if so, it's best to abandon your order. Netscape and Internet Explorer support secure servers; other browsers may not.

A respectable online merchant will not ask for your payment information via e-mail. E-mail is not encrypted and could be read by other parties.

Credit and debit cards are the most viable option for online transactions. Some credit cards, like American Express Blue, now offer special e-commerce features, such as total online fraud protection and an extension of merchants' no-return policies to 90 days.

Company Contact Info

Many sites still don't make it easy for you to reach them if there's a problem, so make sure they post a phone number as well as e-mail and U.S. Postal Service addresses. Established businesses have standard policies on returns, privacy, and customer satisfaction. These should be clearly displayed at the site.

Privacy Policy

Most online shopping sites will ask you to register on their site. When you register, you will be asked to provide some personal information. If you're concerned about online privacy (or just don't want unwanted junk e-mail), here are some tips to follow:

1. Read the merchant's privacy policy (usually found on the home page or under "Help"). If a site doesn't have one, don't shop there.

2. Fill out only the minimum information required in online ordering forms. Many online forms indicate optional fields either in bold-faced words or highlighted by asterisks.

3. Use different usernames and/or passwords with each site that asks you to register. (Decide on one place where you'll write them all down to keep track.) Some sites will let you make individual purchases without registering. Take that option if you don't plan to shop there regularly.

4. Look for boxes on the registration form that let you accept or reject general marketing e-mails from the merchant. These usually say something like, "Please send me information about great deals at (name of merchant)." If you don't want the e-mail, don't check the box.

5. Look for boxes on the registration form that let you specify that the information you provide is for the merchant's use alone. These boxes usually say something like, "Please send me special offers from your marketing partners." If you don't want the mail, don't check the box.

6. When you're looking at those check boxes, read the accompanying text carefully. Sometimes the sites check these boxes for you automatically, and you need to "deselect" or "uncheck" the box to avoid the additional marketing e-mails.

A site may know more about you than you think, even when you're just browsing.

Returns Made Easy

Returning items you've purchased online is usually a snap, but some sites turn the process into a hassle. For easier exchanges and faster refunds, keep the following tips in mind:

Learn the Policy

First, figure out what the company's return policy is. It is usually posted on the site but often is difficult to find. If you inquire about the return policy by e-mail, you may find that a few sites don't respond for several days, if at all. When in doubt, call.

It's a good idea to ask about returns before you even place an order. If you discover you're dealing with a company that is so disorganized the customer service staff doesn't know the return policy, you might reconsider your purchase.

Play by Their Rules

Some sites ask you to call for a return authorization number. The company may not accept the item unless this number is written on the mailing label, but you might not know this unless you read the shipping invoice carefully. Sometimes, it can be a challenge to get that authorization number. A few sites don't have toll-free phone numbers, don't answer their phone during business hours, say they will call you back with the number but never do, or will not send you the number for up to five business days. Some companies require that you return items via a specific mailing service, such as FedEx. Others insist on sending you a mailing label to return an item.

If you feel you're getting the runaround, start keeping track of the dates and times that you call. If you get through to a representative, write down his or her name and the information you receive. Ask specific questions, such as when you can expect to receive your return number or label. If you don't receive it in that amount of time, call back and speak with a supervisor. If you still have problems, ask your credit card company to stop the payment for that item.

Keep a Paper Trail

Save the confirmation e-mail you receive after you've placed an order. It should contain an order number. It's also smart to make a copy of the shipping invoice when your purchase arrives, because many companies ask you to return the original copy with the merchandise.

Always enclose a letter that includes your order number, a request for a refund, your credit card number and your phone number, in case the merchant has questions.

Return in Good Condition

As with any return, the item must be in unused, saleable condition (unless, of course, you're returning it because it's broken). Unpack what you buy with care, as the packaging must be returned along with the merchandise, and retailers prefer both to be in good shape. For your own protection, repack the item well and send it by certified mail, which requires a signature upon delivery and costs just $1.40 extra. If it's a big-ticket item (like a watch), insure it.

Most sites will not cover your return shipping costs unless there is a problem with the merchandise.

Follow Up

After you return something, check your credit card statement very closely for your credit. Once in a while, companies fail to issue credit. When your refund does show up, make sure it is the correct amount. If it's less, you may have been charged a restocking fee, which is usually 10 to 20 percent of the item's cost. (If this fee is not mentioned on your receipt or on the Web site, call the company to request a full refund.)

Many companies acknowledge that you've returned an item with an e-mail or a receipt in the mail. However, getting your credit card account credited may take up to six weeks. If you haven't received a credit within two credit card statements, contact the company you ordered from. If that merchant is unresponsive, contact your credit card company. You may also want to lodge a complaint with the Better Business Bureau online or Bizrate, a merchant-rating program.