published Saturday, December 1st, 2012

Consumer Watch: Take precautions while online holiday shopping


by Ellen Phillips

Q. I'm planning to do some online shopping for holiday gifts. What precautions should I take? — Sarah Safety

A. Dear Ms. Safety: Online shopping can be a safe and happy experience, especially if you wish to avoid the hordes of shoppers in the malls and shopping centers. According to Consumer Reports, you're far from alone in this type of purchasing: more than 167 million customers are expected to shop via this medium by the end of the year. You're wise to take measures to protect your identity and credit card information, so here go a few suggestions:

• Shop from home. Public computers are often unsecure and expose you to risks of fraud and identity theft.

• Be sure to shop at secure websites. Check to see the "s" follows the "http" (https) which means the merchants' order page is protected. The site is also safe if you see a closed padlock or a key symbol at the bottom of the page.

• Review privacy policies. It's always better to take a few moments to read the critical info than to regret not doing so later on. Shop with merchants who are members of the BBBOnline, TRUSTe, or Verisign, all of which set guidelines for privacy-related practices which are the best ones for shopping online.

• Use a credit card rather than an ATM or debit card. The Fair Credit Billing Act provides more protection on these credit card buys in the event Sam Scam jumps out of the bushes.

• To find out what's out there and where the deals are, check these websites: www.flit.com tells where an item is carried and if it's in stock; www.hautelook.com lets you pay half price for books, clothing, jewelry, and more; www.pricegrabber.com is a great price-comparison search engine to find the best deals on everything from small-ticket items like books to spurges such as computers; www.sale.com obviously tells what's on sale (duh...) but by brand, item, and merchant. www.twitter.com notifies @earlybird of exclusive savings from certain merchants and, finally, www.zingsale.com alerts you if an item you're looking at drops in price.

For coupons, two of the best sites to peruse are www.extrabux.com and www.ebates.com, both of which gives you codes, coupons, and even cash back on some items.

• Carefully review statements. I've mentioned this over and over but really can't stress it enough. When your monthly statements come in, go over them with a fine-toothed comb. ID thieves don't always interfere with high charges; they sometimes make a low-amount "test charge to see if the card accepts this charge. (Sometimes, it can be as small an amount as $1.99 or less.) If the charge goes through, the thieves may strike with a much larger amount on down the road.

Ellen Phillips is a retired English teacher who has written two consumer-oriented books. Her Consumer Watch column appears every Saturday. Email her at consumer watch@timesfree press.com.

about Ellen Phillips...

Ellen Phillips is a retired English teacher who has written two consumer-oriented books. Her Consumer Watch column appears on Saturdays in the Business section of the paper. An expanded version is at www.timesfreepress.com under Local Business.

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