Millions of us regularly bypass big brand-name companies brick-and-mortar stores to shop on their websites instead. We're good at that. But what about the other world of cyber commerce, where you buy from individuals?
It can be just as rewarding. However, just as you keep your wallet close when you're out at a shopping mall, you need to be cautious when you deal with strangers online. Predators are waiting for you to slip up so they can get their grubby hands on your financial information - or, worse, your identity.
Here are some tips on how to shop safely at three types of online venues.
1. Online classifieds
Need a milk-shake blender? Been looking for a neon beer sign for the bar in the basement? Before you buy a brand new one, check out the classifieds, whether they're on free sites such as Craigslist or paid sites run by newspapers. You can't beat the prices, as owners generally want to get rid of the items and are willing to wheel and deal.
How it works: You respond to the ad by emailing the seller through the website. The seller will contact you about the availability and location of the item. Most sellers will ask you to pay in cash - rather than risk a bad check.
There's at least one drawback to buying this way. "Online classified sites don't offer you any buyer protection," says Claudia Lombana, a PayPal specialist and consumer expert. If anything goes wrong, "you are on your own."
- First and foremost, do not travel alone to meet your seller. Always take someone with you for added security. As a bonus safety measure, tell a friend or family member where you're going. Take your cellphone with you.
- Pick up the item in a public place when possible (a coffee shop or other busy location). If it's a heavy item that you have to haul from the seller's house, travel with at least two helpers who can keep you safe and help you move the item.
- Never wire funds via Western Union or MoneyGram. "Anyone who asks you to do so is likely a scammer," Lombana says.
- Absolutely never give personal financial information (credit card numbers, bank account information) to a seller. If the seller has a credit card machine, insist on paying cash anyway.
- Trust your gut feelings. If it sounds too good to be true … well, you know the rest.