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.
2. Online auctions
How it works: Sign up for a free membership. Browse for the item you're looking for. Once you find it, check the opening bid and how much time you have to make an offer. Before you enter a bid, click on the item to read more about it. Auction sites often let buyers post feedback on sellers. Read it. Also read the sales policies of the auction site.
If you're satisfied with your research, enter a reasonable bid. If your bid is the highest when the clock runs out, you win! On eBay, you sometimes have the option to skip the auction and buy the item outright for a set fee.
It's important to note that once you've won an auction, you're financially obligated to go through with the transaction. So make sure you're sure. Should you have any issues with the product or seller, eBay offers a buyer protection plan that covers many items purchased on its site. In some cases, the company will cover your original price and shipping costs. It will contact the seller on your behalf.
- The seller will advise you how payment will be accepted. Back out unless you can use a credit card or a PayPal account - they offer some protection against fraud. Using a debit card linked to your main checking account is not a safe idea: Once money flows out, you'll have a hard time getting it back if there's trouble.
- It's worth repeating that you should take the seller feedback seriously. Make sure your seller has a high rating before you deal.
- Beware of fraudulent emails that may come to you after you've made your purchase, particularly if they have links for you to click on.
3. Online marketplaces
Shoppers flock to websites such as Amazon.com and Half.com because they're one-stop shops where you can buy virtually anything, from music to power tools. Companies compete along with individual sellers for your attention.
How it works: Browse for the jazz album or sander that you want. When you've found it, check out which seller is offering the best price. Do you want to buy used or new? The option is yours.
- Look at the sellers' ratings if they're available. Is the feedback positive?
- As with auctions, the seller will advise you on how payment will be accepted. Go through with a deal only if you can use a credit card or a PayPal account.
- Use a secure checkout process. How do you know it's secure? Look for the "s" at the end of "http" on your browser address when you get to the transaction page.
- Also, look for a closed padlock icon. Click on it and it will show you security details. If the lock is open, you should assume the site is not secure, Lombana says. "Some fraudulent sites are built with a bar at the bottom of the Web page to imitate the lock icon."
- Read the return and refund policy on the site so you know your rights as a consumer.
Stacy Julien is a writer and editor at AARP Media.
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