Kathleen G. Kane - Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General - Protecting Pennsylvanians

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ASK THE ATTORNEY GENERAL: Is it safe to do my holiday shopping online?

Each year, millions of Americans do their holiday shopping online. While shopping online is a great way to save time and money, consumers should take some safety precautions to help ensure they have a successful online purchasing experience. holiday shopping

What should I think about before I shop online?

  • Use reputable sellers. Do your homework before you choose an online retailer by reviewing its website and asking friends and family for reliable places to shop. If the retailer is not well-known, make sure you verify how long it has been in business, if the business has a physical address, and whether a telephone number is listed. If you're not sure about a particular online retailer, call it. Also, look for logos from organizations that certify online retailers such as the BBBOnline (Better Business Bureau), Verisign, or TRUSTe. Do not give your business to an online retailer if you have any questions or concerns about its legitimacy.  
  • Comparison Shop. If you find something you like, check out the prices of other online retailers and what their policies are with respect to additional fees, shipping charges and returns.
  • Determine shipping costs and delivery times. Understand what the retailer charges for shipping costs and whether additional fees are charged. Determine the retailer's delivery times to make sure you will receive your purchases when you want them. Many reputable companies provide the ability to track delivery or they send emails alerting you when your items were mailed and their expected delivery date. If the company has special advertisements on its website or makes certain promises regarding delivery, print or save copies of the advertisements in case you have problems in the future. Also, if a retailer does not give you a specific delivery date, it should ship the items within 30 days of receiving your order. If the delivery will not be made within 30 days, the retailer should give you notice of the delay so you can either consent to the delay or cancel your order and receive a refund. Be sure to check whether the retailer you choose offers you these delivery notices.
  • Read the refund and return policy. Before you make an online purchase be sure to understand the retailer's return and refund policy. The return policy may require returns within a certain number of days, charge fees for returns, or allow only store credit rather than a refund. Also, find out whether you or the retailer pays for the shipping costs on returns.
  • Read the Privacy Policy. Reputable online retailers will have a privacy policy explaining what information is collected when you visit its website, why it is collected, and how your information is used and/or disclosed to third parties. If you are not comfortable with a retailer's privacy policy, look elsewhere.
  • Keep your records. Print everything related to your transaction including confirmation messages, receipts, copies of what you purchased and any email communications between you and the retailer. If you have any problems with the purchase, you will be in a better position to resolve it if you have documentation.
  • Use anti-virus software and firewall.  Before you shop online, be sure to install a virus protection program or make sure the one you have is current. Viruses can corrupt your computer files and crash your computer. Firewalls help prevent hackers from accessing your system and transmitting your personal information without your authorization. 

Is it safe to give an online retailer my financial information to make purchases?

It depends on the online retailer you choose. Only enter private information onto a secure website that encrypts your information while it is being transmitted over the Internet. Encrypting information simply means scrambling the data during transmission in order to protect against unauthorized access. A secure website can be identified by a URL which begins with "https, "which means it is "secure." Also, look for a small lock or key symbol on the bottom right corner of your computer screen indicating that area of the website is secure.

You should never send financial information over regular email - it is not secure and is comparable to sending a postcard in the mail.  If you are unsure about the retailer's security measures, look at their online Privacy or Security Policy or call them.  Using your credit card is also the safest way to shop. Never send cash. If you use your credit card, you are liable for up to $50 if you are billed for fraudulent charges unless your credit card company offers promotions such as zero liability on unauthorized purchases.

What if I have complaints about my online shopping experience?

Contact the online retailer and try to resolve the dispute. If the matter is not resolved, file a complaint with the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection at www.attorneygeneral.gov or call the toll-free hotline at 1-800-441-2555.