Avoid these pitfalls of online shopping

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If mall parking lots are your waking nightmare this time of year, you’re probably planning to do at least some of your holiday shopping online. There are risks, though, that come with the convenience. Rip-off retailers, faulty merchandise, ID theft—last Christmas, online shoppers griped about those and other problems, according to the Plum Tree Group, an e-commerce consulting company, and Infegy, a market-research company. Here are some of the most serious online shopping dangers and how to avoid them:

The website is shady

Just because a website looks legitimate doesn’t mean it is. Some are scams set up to steal your identity, your credit-card information, or both. Others sell counterfeit goods. And still others engage in unethical practices, such as luring you in with low prices they honor only if you buy extra items, or quietly adding unexpected charges based on fine-print disclosures they know you won’t read.

What to do: Before shopping with an unfamiliar online retailer, look it up at the Better Business Bureau. Check its rating, look for complaints made against it, and confirm that it has an address. Also see what others are saying about the business by searching the Internet with the website name and such terms as “complaints” and “reviews.”

Use a credit card rather than a debit card so that you can more easily dispute a charge if there are any shenanigans. And read the retailer’s conditions carefully.

The goods you get are defective

The fine print on retail websites typically says that all products are sold as is, something we rarely see in walk-in stores. That means the sites are disclaiming the so-called implied warranty of merchantability, an unwritten assurance that generally gives you the right to reject defective merchandise, even months after purchase.

Many sites we checked say that customers can return defective items during the stated return period, often 30 days. After that, many tell you to deal directly with the manufacturer, which may make you ship the item back at your own expense and wait perhaps weeks for a refurbished replacement.

About a dozen states and the District of Columbia don’t allow retailers to disclaim basic warranty rights. But even if you do have the right to return a defective product to an online store, getting satisfaction when a retailer is far away can be tricky.

Another concern is that a website may not be an authorized dealer for the products it sells. Those “gray market” items probably aren’t covered by a manufacturer’s warranty.

What to do: Verify that the site is an authorized dealer by reading the product description and terms and conditions, or by asking the manufacturer. The only way to ensure that you’ll receive your full warranty rights is to shop in a walk-in store, but if you buy online and discover a defect late, contact the retailer anyway. The store might not want to lose your future business, even if it means stretching the limits of its policy.

The site is loosey-goosey with your personal info

After buying a product online, the last thing you want is a lot of spam from the merchant or from companies to which it sold your info.

What to do: Before giving personal data, read the site’s privacy policy. Many retailers let you elect to receive offers or have your info shared. But others make agreement automatic unless you take action, such as clearing checked boxes. So be observant. And limit the info you provide to what’s critical for completing the purchase.

Your payments are intercepted or your computer catches a virus

Providing credit-card information over an unsecured connection or surfing the Web with an unprotected computer or smart phone is asking for trouble.

What to do: Verify that the retailer is using a secured connection by making sure that its Web address starts with the “https” prefix (note the “s”) and that there is a locked padlock icon on your browser’s status bar. That’s especially important if you’re using a Wi-Fi hot spot, though you are better off not sending financial or personal information via hot spots or on public computers.

And be sure that the operating system, browser, and security software are up to date on your computer and smart phone. If your smart phone doesn’t have security software, consider getting it.

This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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