Five tips for safe Web shopping

When making online purchases, it pays to know who you're dealing with, what you're getting, and when you're getting it, but beware of unwanted offers and unexpected charges.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
3 min read

Web shoppers are a suspicious lot. That's the conclusion of a recent poll conducted by Zogby International and funded by Symantec and the National Cyber Security Alliance. The survey found that 63 percent of online shoppers abandoned a purchase due to security concerns.

Among the reasons given for failing to complete the transaction were sites that asked for too much information, uncertainty about how their personal data would be used by the site, and lack of faith in the site's security. These are all valid concerns.

CNET News reporter Greg Sandoval describes recent Congressional hearings on bogus online loyalty programs that sucker Web shoppers into offers that are loaded with fine print. Sandoval's follow-up report indicates that few of the big-name sites profiting from these programs intend to end their relationships with the companies being scrutinized.

Even if you've been making Web purchases for years, it pays to review the top five tips for avoiding unpleasant online-shopping surprises.

Know who you're dealing with
You can get an indication of a site's trustworthiness by using a site-rating browser add-on such as the Web of Trust, LinkExtend, and McAfee SiteAdvisor. I described these and other security add-ons for Firefox in a post on Nov. 17, but these and similar site-rating services are available for Internet Explorer and other browsers as well.

The BBB Online's shopping tips suggest that if you're not sure about completing a Web purchase, look for a toll-free phone number you can call to place your order. Just remember not to volunteer more information than necessary, whether you make your purchase via a Web form or telephone.

Know exactly what you're getting—and when and how you're getting it
Document as many specs as possible about the products you're purchasing, including model numbers, dimensions, item numbers, and guarantees of authenticity. Know beforehand all delivery and handling charges, warranties, and return/refund policies. Get the tracking number of the delivery service the vendor will use.

In my experience, the ability of Amazon and other reputable Web sites to deliver products when they promise goes down as the heart of holiday shopping season approaches. To avoid Christmas morning disappointments, shop very early or stick to brick and mortar for your most important purchases.

Watch for prechecked or disguised 'offers'
Just as you can find your browser sporting a new toolbar if you rush through an update of your media player or PDF reader, being in a hurry when you make a Web purchase can cause you to "sign up" for unwanted offers. Technologizer blogger Harry McCracken found himself an inadvertent enrollee in the SavingsAce affinity program run by Vertrue, which is one of the companies under investigation by Congress.

Maintain a complete paper trail
Print out all transaction records, invoices, order-confirmation e-mails, warranties, return and refund policies, and anything else that documents the transaction. The BBB Online recommends printing Web pages showing the vendor's name, physical address, and telephone number. Also print pages with information about the product you're purchasing and the seller's privacy policy and legal terms.

Watch for unexpected charges after the fact
Some of the most unpleasant surprises may not manifest themselves until you receive your next credit-card statement. Be ready to challenge any unauthorized fees or other added charges. Watch out for mystery charges from third-party vendors such as Harry's experience with SavingsAce.

If you're unable to work out any problems with the vendor, the BBB Online recommends using the Better Business Bureau's complaint form, the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection complaint form, or the equivalent complaint form on the site of your state's attorney general.

Unfortunately, when I went this route with the faulty notebook computer HP sold me, I got nowhere fast. Still, you might have better luck with your complaints than I had with mine.