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9 Ways to Shop Safely Online

How to stay clear of online holiday shopping hoaxes

En español | The Monday after Thanksgiving known as Cyber Monday,  kicks off the online holiday shopping season.

Shopping online helps you avoid the crowds and hassles of stores during the holidays and can fetch some great bargains. But surfing for gifts in cyberspace can be risky, courtesy of copycat websites that shoppers sometimes visit inadvertently after typing the name of that sought-after item into a search engine.

Although legitimate online retailers pop up on the screen, so do "cybersquatters," bogus businesses that steal or alter the Internet addresses of well-known companies to launch copycat sites.

Some are simply fronts for scammers to collect shoppers' credit card numbers. Others actually sell things, but their "incredible deals," if delivered at all, are usually poorly made knockoffs.

How to shop safely this holiday season

  • When you click through to a website, carefully read the domain name — the Internet address — that appears at the top of your browser. Beware of any site whose name has even the slightest change from a legitimate online retailer's — extra words or letters, misspellings — and anything but the usual .com or .org ending.

    One example (which vanished after Scam Alert exposed it earlier this year) was, a slight tweak of the real Tiffany website, The ending ".mn" meant the website was registered in Mongolia.
  • Make sure that addresses of ordering pages always begin with "https://" instead of "http://." The "s" means it is secure.
  • Pay attention to disclosures at the bottom of the page. Most legitimate online retailers have a "Contact Us" page with a phone number and physical address, and a "Terms and Conditions" link detailing return policies and such. Bogus websites may lack these pages or have them but not tell you what you need to know.

Next: Avoid websites that don't list a physical address. >>

  • Avoid any website that doesn't provide a physical address, which you can verify by looking up the company on the Internet, or a phone number. Scam sites often allow only for e-mail correspondence, which makes for better hiding in cyberspace. If a phone number is listed, call it to ensure it's not a fax machine or voicemail with no live operator — two more red flags for a potential scam.

  • Watch for "scammer grammar." Although legitimate retailers may not moonlight for Webster's dictionary, their websites tend to be absent of the frequent misspellings and grammatical errors of the websites, ads and e-mail of scammers, who are often foreigners with poor command of English or fly-by-nights with little time to spell-check while trying to stay one step ahead of the law.

  • Reject any requests for wire transfer payment. It's the quickest way to lose money, especially if it's sent overseas. Legit online retailers accept credit cards, which offer you more protection than debit transactions if you need to dispute payment.

  • Don't believe sob stories. Beware of "act now" offers that tell you the seller is a soldier needing cash for possessions before deploying to a war zone or a recent divorcée wanting to unload her former husband's belongings. These tactics are often bait to empty your wallet; the items typically don't exist.

  • Research the prices. Similar items typically fall into a general price range. If one being offered to you falls way below that range, you need to ask yourself why. The usual answer: Scammers use ridiculously low prices to lure consumers into a bogus bargain.

  • Be on guard at online auctions. Lost the winning bid on eBay or another auction website? Don't be taken in by follow-up e-mails offering the same deal. Scammers often cruise online auction sites to pounce on losing bidders and direct them away from those secure buying environments.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

Also of interest: Many happy returns. >>

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