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A Beginner's Guide to Shopping Online for Fun and Savings

Is your Dad or Great Aunt Phyllis intimidated by shopping online? This beginner's guide will help them get up and running — and save you and them a trip to the mall.
This chapter is from the book

When prosperity comes, do not use all of it.


In This Chapter

  • Safe and Secure Shopping

  • Using Shopping Carts

  • Online Catalogs and Auctions

Forget crowded malls, endless parking lots, and long lines. From groceries to gifts, you can buy just about anything online. Online shopping can save you time and money. You can use special websites called comparison shopping sites to find the best price for any given item. Although Internet shopping won't completely replace window shopping at the mall, when you know exactly what you want, online shopping can't be beat. It is also perfect for when you need to send something across the miles. Need a shower present for your niece in Chicago? Order online. Have the company gift wrap the present and insert a gift card with your own personalized message. No trip to the mall. No trek to the post office. What could be easier?

Safe and Secure Shopping

Nervous about shopping online? You are not alone. Many people enter the world of online purchases with trepidation. Yet, as each year passes, more and more people overcome their anxieties and jump online to make purchases. Nothing is completely safe, but online shopping has proven itself with millions of transactions being safely processed each day.

There are a few simple things you need to do to make sure that your online shopping is safe and secure. The first is in choosing trustworthy companies. Because credit card fraud takes a bite out of their bottom lines, most reputable companies have devoted a great deal of effort to ensure your shopping experience is enjoyable, your personal information is safeguarded, and your transactions are secure.

Finding a Reputable Company

Many of your favorite brick-and-mortar stores, to whom you have been loyal over the years, now offer you the convenience of shopping online from their "click and mortar" stores. These tried and true stores are usually safe places to start.

You can also ask relatives and friends. Several good recommendations about an online store should increase the possibility that you will want to shop there.

Yet, sometimes you are faced with deciding if you want to make a purchase from a store with which you are completely unfamiliar. For instance, say you have been browsing for a while and you find a great buy on a cashmere sweater. You find your size and you like the color, but you’ve never heard of the company. Is it safe to buy this sweater online? What can you do to help ensure that your money and your privacy are protected? First of all, before you place your order, look for information about the company on its website, such as its mailing address (not just a post office box) and its telephone number.

Unfortunately, anyone can set up an Internet website. If you are unfamiliar with a particular company, one good way to check them out is to find out if they have a toll-free telephone number you can call to get more information about them. Again, ask your friends and neighbors if they are familiar with the company and ask for their feedback.

Secondly, read the site’s privacy policy. Every reputable website that collects customer or user information should have a privacy policy explaining how they protect the information submitted to their website. Some online websites sell the information you give them to other companies. When making your purchase, be sure not to give them permission to share your information to other companies. Sometimes it’s in the fine print, so be careful when you are placing your order. Exercise your right to opt out if you do not want the seller to pass along information about you. If you do not agree with their privacy policy, do not deal with that company.

There are several companies that put their seal of approval on privacy statements. This is kind of like having a Good Housekeeping seal of approval on a product. It certifies that the website adheres to strict privacy standards. TRUSTe, a nonprofit organization that promotes privacy on the Internet, is one of the most recognizable of these companies. If a website has a TRUSTe certification, it doesn’t necessarily mean they carry good products or give good service, but it is an indication that they care about the customer and are more likely to be a substantial company.

Paying by Credit Card

After you have determined you are dealing with a reputable company, the most important thing to watch out for when making an online purchase is whether the web page on which you put your personal information, particularly your credit card number, is secure. There are several ways to confirm you are protected, so it is easy to practice safe online shopping.

There are two very simple ways to identify a web page as secure. Instead of the URL in the address bar beginning with http://, it begins with https://, the extra s stands for secure. See Figure 3.1 for an example.

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 At the Target website you see the https:// in the address bar, indicating that you are on a secure web page.

In addition to seeing https://, you will also see a closed padlock, in all browsers. One is not present without the other. Both of these features represent secure sites that are using Secure Socket Layering (SSL), which is a particularly reliable encryption process that scrambles credit card information after it is entered and before it is transferred.

In Netscape and Opera, the lock is always visible, but it is in an unlocked state when the page is not secure. In Internet Explorer, look for a gold locked padlock at the bottom-right on the status bar. Firefox also puts a gold lock on the status bar, but it looks a bit different than the one in IE. Opera uses a gray lock to the right of the address bar, and Netscape Navigator uses a gold lock with a gold hue surrounding it on the status bar. Just remember that a closed lock, such as the one shown in Figure 3.2, means you are on a secure page.

Do not look for the entire site to be secure. The page on which you put your dress or shoe size, or where you indicated you want to purchase three copies of a certain book, does not need to be a secure page. However, do not do business with any company that does not offer you a secure page for your credit card, shipping, and billing information. Remember to look for the https:// and the closed padlock before entering any private personal information.

When you pay online using your credit card, the Fair Credit Billing Act will protect your transaction. Under this legislation, consumers have the right to dispute certain charges for goods or services they never received or ordered, and they may temporarily withhold their payment. Generally, customers are held liable for only the first $50 worth of unauthorized credit card charges. The type of credit card used, however, can make a difference. Some credit card companies provide supplemental warranties or other purchase-protection benefits. If you have a problem with your purchase, you might be able to withhold payment while your credit card company investigates the problem.

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2 The closed yellow lock in the lower-right corner of this web page indicates that it is a secure page.

Check the Return Policy

When shopping online, do not place any orders until you thoroughly understand the company’s return policy. What if you do not like what you purchased? Can it be returned? Is there a restocking fee? Will the company pay for the return postage if the product arrives damaged? If the website also has a brick-and-mortar store, can you return the product there? Will you get a refund or will you have to settle for a store credit? Even if you are dealing with a well-known business where you are a regular customer, be aware that some companies have different rules for their online shoppers than they do for purchasing items from their brick-and-mortar stores or mail order catalogs. You do not want any surprises, so do your homework. Most companies make this information easily understandable and accessible on their websites.

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Last Update: November 17, 2020