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Before You Buy Products or Gifts Online

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Shopping online is fast, convenient and opens up a whole new world of products and services. Yet, just like shopping in traditional retail stores, you need to be a smart consumer. Make the most of your cyber shopping experience with these tips for protecting your privacy, finding the best deals and dealing with unsatisfactory purchases.

Shop Wisely

When shopping on the Internet, exercise the same care and judgment that you would at the mall. Get the company's name, address and phone number and contact the Better Business Bureau for a report. Consider dealing only with vendors which clearly state their shipping, return and privacy policies. Look for affiliation with a seal or certification program such as Gomez, BizRate, WebAssured or BBBOnLine.

Know Your Rights

The same laws that protect you when you shop by phone or mail apply when you shop on the Internet. Under the law, a company must ship your order within the time stated on its Web site. If no time is promised, the company must ship your order within 30 days. If they are unable to ship within the promised time, they must inform you and give you the option to cancel the order for a prompt refund.

Read the Fine Print

Before making a purchase online, take the time to read through the company's refund/return policy. Merchants are not obligated to accept items for refund, exchange or credit unless the item is defective or was misrepresented, but many have much more liberal return policies. Review product warranties and look for information about any restrictions, limitations or conditions of the purchase.

Maintain Your Privacy

Don't disclose personal information - address, phone number, Social Security number or email address - unless you know who is collecting the information and how they plan to use it. Read the company's online privacy policy or send an email asking them how they plan to use your personal information.

Get The Best Deal

Compare prices among a variety of merchants, check shipping and handling fees, and order early to allow plenty of time for shipment and delivery without additional rush delivery costs.

Pay By Credit or Charge Card

Credit card transactions are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act, which covers disputes over non-delivered or misrepresented merchandise. Federal law limits your liability for unauthorized charges to $50. Some cards may provide additional warranty, return and/or purchase protection benefits. If you are worried about providing your card number over the Internet, then call/fax the information.

Keep Good Records

Be sure to print a copy of your order confirmation for your records and also save any email receipts. Keep any advertisements or materials that show a specific delivery time, or write the delivery time in your records if one was promised. Keep track of your purchases and if you don't receive them by the expected date, then contact the company to follow up on your order.

When Something Goes Wrong

f you have an unsatisfactory shopping experience, begin by contacting the retailer. The ones who want to stay in business will work with you to resolve your complaint. If you still can't achieve satisfaction, then take your business elsewhere in the future. You can also contact your credit card company, if applicable. If you suspect a law has been broken, you may file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

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