Skip Navigation Links

Online Shopping

Download this article as an audio podcast 

Some people love the thrill of a shopping trip to the mall during the holiday season: waking up at dawn, battling for a parking spot, waiting in line, hunting for bargains, hustling, bustling, trampling, waiting in line, the sound of other people's cell phone conversations and bad holiday music ringing in your ears, the smell of fast food and sickeningly sweet treats from the food court wafting through the air, waiting in line, realizing you left your wallet at the last store you went to, and waiting in line. I am not one of those people. I have been shopping on the Internet ever since it was an option. I can shop in my pajamas, coffee cup in hand, with my kind of holiday music playing in the background, and a warm puppy snuggling at my toes. Unless, of course, I am work, in which case I leave my dog at home.

But there is a price for the convenience of shopping online, and that is constant vigilance. Unwary shoppers can, at worst, become the victims of identity theft, and at least, suffer the inconveniences of hidden costs, late delivery, or the shipment of wrong or damaged items.

Here are some tips from the Federal Citizen Information Center's Consumer Action Website on how to avoid such problems and how to make it easier to resolve them should they occur:

  • Know who you are doing business with. Anyone can sell almost anything online using almost any name. Verify the seller's "brick and mortar" address and telephone number in case you have questions or problems later. If you get an email or pop-up message while you are browsing that asks for financial information, do not reply or click on the link in the message. Legitimate companies do not ask for this kind of information via email.
  • Know exactly what you are getting. Read the vendor's description of the merchandise closely, especially the fine print. Terms like "vintage," "close-out," or "refurbished," could indicate that the product is in less-than-perfect condition, while name-brand items with "too good to be true" prices could be counterfeits.
  • Know what it will cost. Check out websites that offer price comparisons and then, compare "apples to apples." Factor in taxes, shipping, and handling into the total cost of the order.
  • Pay by credit card. If you pay by credit card you will be protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act, which provides that you have the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while the creditor is investigating them. In the event of unauthorized use of your credit card, you are generally liable only for the first $50 in charges. Some companies offer an online shopping guarantee ensuring you will not be held responsible for any unauthorized online charges, and some cards provide additional return, warranty, and other purchase protection benefits. Do not send cash under any circumstances.
  • Check out the terms of the deal, such as delivery dates and refund policies. Can you return the item for a full refund if you are not satisfied? Who pays the shipping costs if you return it? When will you receive your replacement order?A Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rule requires sellers of items ordered by mail or telephone to ship items as promised or within 30 days after the order date if no specific date is promised.
  • Keep a paper trail. Print and save records of your online transactions, including the product description and price, the online receipt, and copies of every email you send or receive from the seller. Read your credit card statements as you receive them and be on the lookout for unauthorized charges.
  • Do not email your financial information. Email is not a secure method of transmitting financial information like your credit card, checking account, or Social Security number. Be very careful about responding to an e-mail from anyone who asks for your password(s), social security number, birth date, bank account, credit card number, mother's maiden name, or other personal information. Sellers and financial institutions do not ask you for such information unless you are entering into a transaction with them. If you initiate a transaction and want to provide your financial information through an organization's website, look for indicators that the site is secure.
  • Check the privacy policy. It should let you know what personal information the website operators are collecting, why, and how they are going to use the information. If you cannot find a privacy policy - or if you cannot understand it, consider taking your business to another site that is more consumer-friendly.

How to Report if You Have Been a Victim of Online Shopping Fraud

If you have problems during a transaction, try to work them out directly with the seller or web site operator. If that does not work, you can file a complaint with:

How To Tell If Your Internet Connections Are Secure

"Identity Theft" occurs when someone obtains your credit card, bank account, social security number or other personal identifying information and purchases products or obtains credit cards or loans in your name. You should vigilantly safeguard personal information that a thief might use to impersonate you or use your credit.

Reputable online sellers use technology that scrambles sensitive information, such as your credit card number, so that it can be read only by the merchant you are dealing with and your credit card issuer. This ensures that your payment information cannot be read by anyone else or changed along the way. There are several ways to determine if you have that protection when you are sending payment information on the web:

  • Look for the picture of the unbroken key or closed lock in your browser window. Either one indicates that the security is operative. A broken key or any open lock indicates it is not.
  • Look to see if the web address on the page that asks for your credit card information begins with "https:" instead of "http" (the "s" stands for "secure").
  • Some web sites use the words "Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)" or a pop up box that says you are entering a secure area.
  • These security protections do not work in e-mail. So, make sure you send personal and payment information in a secure web transaction.

Unfortunately, no indicator is foolproof; some fraudulent sites have forged security icons. Identity thieves make up emails that look remarkably like real websites. If you receive an inquiry for personal information, do not reply directly. To verify that the person contacting you really does work for the seller, call and request to speak to that person directly. You should only have to provide your password to get to your online account, and you should not give your credit card number except when you are actually placing an order.

How can you avoid viruses?

If you receive an unsolicited message, you should not open any attached file with a name ending in ".exe." Clicking on such files could activate a computer virus that might affect the operation of your computer and/or damage the information stored on your computer.

You can also protect yourself against viruses carried by e-mail or by computer files that you have received on a disk or flash drive by purchasing and installing a virus-protection program. These programs need to be updated as new viruses are constantly being invented. You may subscribe to a service that will either automatically update your anti-virus program or alert you when updates are available. Some internet service providers provide anti-virus protection.

For more information on virus prevention and many more related topics, visit the informational site created by the American Bar Association,

By Kelly Browne, Assistant Director for Public Services
written 12/2008

Links for "Online Shopping"

Federal Citizen Information Center's Consumer Action Website: Shopping from Home - General Tips

Fair Credit Billing Act (15 U.S.Code 1601)

Federal Trade Commission Rule (16 CFR 435): Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise

California Attorney General

California Department of Consumer Affairs

The Better Business Bureau Online Complaint System

Federal Trade Commission: Before You Submit a Complaint