Action: Do your homework to ensure worry-free shopping online

A bit of caution can enhance the fun and ease of shopping online

My colleague Bill Maxwell recently lamented the loss of good customer service in the retail market. "Increasingly, I'm abandoning retail stores for cyberbuying," he said, "where I can sit in front of my computer and not have to deal with a young, ignorant, rude sales clerk."

True enough, but Internet shopping is not without its pitfalls. While the dot-com arm of your favorite bricks-and-mortar store doesn't generally require scrutiny, other lesser known e-tailers do.

Here are some tips for making your next cyber shopping spree successful.

• Before you even start browsing a site, check for a customer service telephone number and call it. See how calls are handled. If it goes directly to voice-mail, there's a fair chance you'll never speak to a human. An e-mail address alone won't cut it if you have a question or need information about your order.

Some sites, like Amazon, sell products for other merchants, whose policies for things like shipping and returns may be different from the host's site. Be sure to know from whom you're buying.

• Get an idea of the business' reputation by checking its profile with the Better Business Bureau at www.bbbonline.org.

• Take a look at the site's privacy policy, usually found at the bottom of the home page. E-tailers may collect information about you and sell or share it. If you don't like that policy, you can opt out. Nowhere to opt out? Keep on surfing.

• Look for clear, detailed information about the product you're interested in. Once you decide on the precise brand, model, etc., do a little comparison shopping by using sites like www.shopzilla.com or www.pricegrabber.com.

• Read and understand the terms and conditions of the sale, which may include restrictions, limitations, warranties, guarantees and health and safety information.

• Cancellation, return and refund information is especially important when purchasing such items as airline tickets or hotel reservations online. Check the policy on restocking fees. Some sites charge up to 25 percent of the purchase price in an effort to discourage returns.

• Use a credit card to make payments. You'll be better protected. The Fair Credit Billing Act limits liability to $50 for any billing errors on a credit card, but you could be on the hook for $500 or more if you use your debit card and wind up with unapproved transactions.

• If it comes down to it, don't let your opportunity to dispute a charge expire. Most credit card companies have a time limit of 60 to 90 days.

• Some merchants may phone you after a sale to "verify" your information. Often these calls are a ruse to try to sell you accessories or an extended warranty. Most of these offers should be declined, but if you're really interested, ask to have the information sent to you in writing.

If you have a complaint against an e-tailer, file it with the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov, the Florida Division of Consumer Protection at www.myfloridalegal.com or the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov.

Sources: Consumer Reports, Federal Trade Commission, Real Simple, Internet Crime Complaint Center

Action: Do your homework to ensure worry-free shopping online 08/09/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 9, 2008 4:33am]

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