Shopping Online? Know Thy Seller

This time of year, it seems like everyone has a guide to shopping safely online. Most tip sheets focus on ways to spot insecure Web sites and harden your computer against data-stealing malware, but it’s equally important to understand whom you’re buying from before it’s too late.

It’s always a good idea to shop for the best price online, but you may be sorry if you let the site with the lowest price be your only guide. If you aren’t familiar with an online merchant, take a few minutes to do some basic consumer research on the vendor. Otherwise, you could end up like the hapless consumers profiled in David Segal‘s readable and entertaining story in The New York Times last week.

The Times piece highlights what appears to be a serious weakness in the major search engines, a shortcoming that favors dodgy merchants: While an abundance of complaints against an online merchant may show up prominently in a Web search for that seller, searches for brand name items may take the consumer straight to the merchant’s site and bypass those negative comments. Furthermore, complaints and bad publicity may even increase an online shop’s standing in the search rankings, the story notes.

If you don’t know much about the seller that has the item you want to buy, investigate its reputation at one or more of the following sites:

Bizrate.com
Resellerratings.com
Epinions.com
Better Business Bureau

Also, it’s not uncommon for bargain basement, phantom Web sites to materialize during the holiday season and vanish forever not long afterward. If you’re buying merchandise from an online store that is brand new, the risk that you will get scammed increases significantly. But how do you know the lifespan of a site selling that must-have gadget at the lowest price? One easy way to get a quick idea is to run a basic WHOIS search on the site’s domain name.

Be careful what you agree to: Check to make sure you know how long the item will take to be shipped, and that you understand the store’s return policies. Also, keep an eye out for hidden surcharges, and be wary of blithely clicking “ok” during the checkout process. This can even be an issue in main street stores: Last night, as I was paying for a prescription at a local CVS Pharmacy, I realized after the fact that I’d agreed to add a $1 charge to my credit card for a holiday charity campaign the store was promoting. As I learned when I returned to contest the charge, the point-of-sale terminal had asked for my approval for this charge, and I’d tapped the green “YES” button after swiping my card without reading the charge request, assuming it was part of the normal process of completing the credit card transaction.

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