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How to shop safely and securely online

Protect your wallet and personal information with these crucial online shopping tips.

Online shopping can be a minefield fraught with data breaches and stolen payment information. But with a little know-how, you can shop safely and securely on the Internet. We broke down some of the best ways to protect yourself (and your wallet!), so you can make stress-free purchases.

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7 tips for safe online shopping

  • Don’t shop online while on public Wi-Fi, as your personal information is less secure.
  • Check out unfamiliar brands on social media before shopping on their websites. A brand’s social media following on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram offers a helpful snapshot of how established the business is and its reputation.
  • Avoid clicking on promotional links from unknown shopping sites that you might receive in your email. There’s a chance they could be spam.
  • Use strong passwords. If you need to create an account for the site, avoid using easy passwords involving your name or birthday, as those are easier for hackers to crack.
  • Don’t share more information than is necessary to make a purchase. A shopping site should never ask for your social security number or require you to enter your birthdate.
  • Use a credit card to make your online payment whenever possible. If your information is stolen, you won’t be liable for the charges.
  • Keep an eye on your credit card statements to make sure no fraudulent charges have been made with your card.

How to tell if a site is legitimate

Look out for these key signs when deciding if a site is safe to shop online:

  • Look for an “https” and a padlock at the start of the website’s URL. This shows that the site is safely encrypting your information so that third parties cannot access it.
  • Dig a little deeper into the website’s information section. Does it list a phone number, address and company email address? You can send a message to the email listed or call the phone line for verification.
  • Enter the web address into Google’s Transparency Report, a handy tool that helps you determine if a site is unsafe.
  • Check reviews for the brand on the Better Business Bureau (BBB)’s website.

How do online shopping site certificates work?

When a website’s URL starts with “https”, that means that it has an SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certification – a fancy way of saying that the site is encrypted so your private information, like credit card number and address, can’t be stolen.

To manually check for a website’s SSL certificate, click the padlock icon that appears before the website URL, then click “certificate” from the dropdown menu that appears. If you do not see a padlock icon or if the certificate is not valid, that website is likely unsecure.

Avoid websites that start with “http” or any other code.

Are online marketplaces like eBay and Etsy safe to shop?

Ebay and Etsy can be great resources for tracking down handmade designs or hard-to-find products. However, you’ll be dealing with an individual seller, rather than a retailer, so take a few extra precautions when shopping on marketplaces like these.

Here are a few safety factors to keep in mind.

  • Don’t give your credit card information to the seller over private messaging or email.
  • Check the seller’s reviews before shopping from their store. Do they have mostly glowing reviews from past customers, or are a large chunk of their reviews negative?
  • Be wary of deals that sound too good to be true. For example, a designer item that’s marked down by 50% or more could be a knockoff or a scam.
  • Read the product description for important information like the item’s condition, measurements and return policy. If this information isn’t listed, message the seller to inquire before finalizing your purchase.
  • Look for original photos, rather than stock photos of an item you’re interested in buying. This can help ensure you’re buying from an actual seller.

What to do if an item arrives damaged, defective or missing

Sometimes even the most reputable retailers make mistakes on orders or send damaged items. Here are a few steps to take if this happens to you.

  • Take a picture of the damaged item. The retailer may ask for visual proof before moving forward.
  • Contact the retailer via phone or email and explain what’s wrong with your purchase. Do this as soon as possible so you don’t miss the return window.
  • Find out how the item needs to be returned. Step-by-step instructions can usually be found on the brand’s website, or on a packing slip that came with your purchase.
  • Have your order number handy before calling or emailing a customer representative so they can more efficiently track down your purchase.

How to find the best deal and avoid ripoffs online

Before making a purchase, double check that you’re getting the best deal possible. Particularly during the pandemic, when essential items have been marked up, it’s important to dig a little deeper before hitting “buy.” There’s a good chance you may be able to find the product you’re interested in on multiple sites — and at multiple price points.

Doing a little research can go a long way when it comes to scoring deals. Some stores offer a price match guarantee, so you can buy your item for a lower price if you show them proof that it’s available for cheaper elsewhere.

How to avoid price gouging

Unfortunately, some retailers have taken advantage of the pandemic to mark up essential items. In April, Amazon suspended more than 6,000 accounts for violating its fair-pricing policies.

So, how do you stay safe from price gouging?

  • Use Finder to compare brands and products to determine that you’re getting the best deal possible.
  • Try to shop stores that you generally know and trust. If you do decide to shop from online marketplaces like Amazon, compare the price of the item with another retailer.
  • Try free price trackers like Camelcamelcamel, which tracks Amazon and alerts you when prices drop on an item.

Bottom line

With proper precautions, online shopping can be fun, productive experience. Take your time before taking the leap and making a purchase. A little research goes a long way in keeping you safe and secure, and happy with your purchases.

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