Five Tips for Safe Online Shopping

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By Brian Krebs
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007; 10:14 PM

If you're one of the nearly 39 million consumers the National Retail Federation expects will do their holiday shopping online this year, then listen up! Use your street smarts in the virtual marketplace and follow these basic online shopping tips to protect yourself and to ensure that your money doesn't become part of the $3.6 billion that merchants expect to lose this year to online fraud by spammers, scammers and shifty retailers.

Here are five tips for staying safe online this holiday season (and the rest of the year too):

1. Shop From a Secure PC

If possible, avoid using the family PC that your teens or children use to chat with their buddies and play games online. Those machines, especially if they're a Microsoft Windows computer, are often already infested with spyware. An infected system will undermine all of the other precautions you might take to avoid online fraud.

Before you start shopping online, make sure your system is running with up-to-date anti-virus software, and that you're using a firewall to block potential intruders. Just as important, be sure that your computer has the latest Microsoft software security updates installed.

2. Shop Smart, and Only at Sites You Know & Trust

Avoid search-engine shopping, which can often lead to random merchants you've never heard of. For the safest and most hassle-free online shopping experience, it's best to stick with merchants you know and trust. Most importantly, make sure you have read and understand the merchant's shipping and return policies before making any purchases.

If you're worried that you'll miss out on the discounts if you shop online, there are a number of well-established online coupon sites -- such as couponcabin.com and currentcodes.com -- that list different promotional codes that you can enter at participating Web merchants during checkout. Generally these discounts range from $5-off coupons, to 10-20 percent off of a certain purchase amount, to free shipping.

Be sure to print a copy of each receipt or confirmation e-mail you receive. Keep all of your receipts in a folder and filed away in a safe place.

Never buy anything advertised via unsolicited e-mail. Such offers are almost always a scam. Criminals even build attractive storefronts for fake businesses that close up shop within days of accepting your online order.

Research unfamiliar sellers. The Better Business Bureau and RipoffReport may offer insights on otherwise legitimate companies that have generated more than their fair share of consumer complaints.

3. Shop with Your Credit Card


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