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How not to get ripped off buying an HDTV online

Thinking of buying an HDTV online? Check out this guide so you don't regret it.

If you read my "Buying an HDTV: Online or in-store" article, you'll see that buying a TV online has a lot of benefits over buying one in a store (like selection, price, avoiding the insane lines, etc).

However, not all online stores are created equal. There are many important factors to look out for when buying online that go far beyond price.

Buyer beware, as they say. Here's how not to get ripped off buying an HDTV online.

I can't offer an opinion on every TV retailer on the Web, as there are gazillions (actual number). What I can do is give you some guidelines to look out for when surfin' and buyin'.

The biggest-name online retailers offer a certain level of comfort, in that they aren't likely to rip you off, and most will help if you have a problem.

When you move to the next rung of retailers, ones that you might not have heard of before, things get a little dicey. As smaller operations, they can often charge lower prices than the bigs. Thankfully, the Internet is all knowing: A simple Google search of the company name should give you the highlights. Are other consumers positive or negative about their experience with the Web site? Every site is going to have a few detractors, but a lot of negatives is worth noting.

Amazon, eBay, and Rakuten all offer storefronts for thousands of smaller companies. These companies live and breathe (or they should) on their seller ratings. For more info on each, check out Amazon's info page on this, and eBay's. Rakuten.com buries this info a bit under "Seller Summary" on each item. All these ratings are user-generated. What percentage is good? Personally I wouldn't buy from a company even in the low 90s, when there are likely better options.

I've bought a number of items on eBay (135-year-old copy of "The Bab Ballads" FTW!) and many used CDs and books from random Amazon affiliates. In the few cases I had a problem, the owners of the stores helped me out immediately. Granted, this isn't like buying a TV, but I know some people are still scared of buying things "over the Internets," and they shouldn't be. Cautious, for sure, but not scared.

Shipping and taxes
Any price advantage from an online retailer can be quickly erased with shipping charges. There are always deals going somewhere. Crutchfield regularly offers free shipping on everything. Amazon, if you're a member of its Prime service, offers free two-day shipping.

If you're buying from a company that doesn't have a physical presence in your state, you might not have to pay sales tax. Certain states, like California, require you to calculate your own sales tax and pay it to the state every April. There's no real oversight for this, seemingly just your own conscience. Other states have no such regulation.

This is key, and I'm sure the No. 1 concern for most people. Amazon has a great return policy, 30 days, and it pays return shipping. Between November 1st and December 31st, you actually have until January 31st. That's only if you buy it from Amazon, though. Its affiliates can have different return policies.

Crutchfield does even better, expanding the window out to 60 days, but you have to pay the shipping: "Some items, like larger TVs, furniture, and large tower speakers require special freight shipping, and cost more to return. Larger TVs carry a $125-$175 return freight fee."

It's worth spending a few minutes digging through the retailer's Web site to find its specific policy. Many times, it's buried. If it doesn't want you to know its return policy, that's probably a bad sign. A good example is Rakuten.com (formally known as Buy.com). It boasts about its 45-day return policy on most items, but its terms are vague. For instance, it doesn't make it clear if you'll have to pay for the return shipping if you just don't like the product. Also, items you buy through their marketplace are bound to the individual seller's return policy (so double check that before you buy).

Often, buying a product from a brick-and-mortar store's Web site (e.g., Best Buy, Walmart, etc.), will give you the option of returning it to your local store.

Also, it's worth noting that many retailers will push extended warranties and expensive cables. Both are just profit centers for the stores, and offer little to no value to you. Check out Are TV extended warranties worth it? and the HDMI cable buying guide for more info. And remember, there's no such thing as "HDMI 2.0" cables.

Are your credit-card numbers safe? Honestly, no, they're not. As the recent spate of hackings has shown, no computer system is truly safe. Some are more safe than others. This is a another example of why you should go with retailers you recognize. That's not to say small Web sites can't be safe, but the big Web sites have a lot riding on you feeling comfortable giving them your info. They're a lot more motivated to secure their databases.

If you use a credit card (as opposed to a debit card), any fraudulent charges can likely be disputed.

Bottom line

Buying online offers lots of benefits (price, selection), but like anything, it pays to be cautious. Just because a Web site has the lowest price, it doesn't necessarily mean that's the best option. If Company A sells a TV for $850, but has a seller rating of 70 percent, it's probably worth going with Company B and its 99 percent rating for $900. Ease of returns and some kind of customer service are likely worth paying for.

What has your experience been with buying TVs online? Any weird experiences?

Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. OLED, active versus passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.