BBB offers tips for safe shopping online—be cyber-savvy!

Thanksgiving weekend marks the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, but many folks will turn to their computers for the convenience of online shopping.

Projections this year are that online holiday retail sales will hit $32 billion. If you will be among the 114 million Web users expected to shop online this month and next, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) offers tips for successful shopping expeditions.

Dennis Horton, director of the BBB’s Regional Office in Rockford, says: “Savvy online shoppers who look for merchants and Web sites they can trust, who take steps to protect their privacy and the security of their financial transactions, and who heed their instincts will reap the many benefits of online shopping.”

Buying from reputable merchants is particularly important when you’re buying “from afar.” To help shoppers find merchants they can trust, the BBB offers three searchable online databases. For local shopping, check For reliability reports on more than 2 million retailers and businesses across the United States and Canada, the Better Business Bureau’s national database is available to consumers at Shoppers can also look for Web sites that display a BBBOnLine trustmark, which indicates the retailer meets high standards for good online business practices; for those merchants, use

To help consumers enjoy a safe online shopping experience, the BBB offers a list of questions to keep handy when looking for electronics, toys, apparel and other popular categories of gifts this holiday season.

1. Is your computer protected? Make sure your computer is equipped with updated spam filters, anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and a secure firewall. Check for and install any new security updates for the programs on your computer and its operating system.

2. Are you in the right frame of mind? You can shop with speed and ease on the Internet, but you still need to shop smart. If you’re tired or distracted, you may want to postpone your online shopping expedition until you can be fully cyber- “aware.”

3. Do you trust the merchant? To check on the seller’s reputation, look for feedback comments from other customers or conduct Web searches. Look for a “trustmark” from BBBOnLine or another reputable organization and “click” on that seal to confirm that it’s valid. You can search for BBBOnLine merchants by gift category or other key words at

4. Do you have all the details? Don’t do business with any retailer that does not provide its physical address and a contact telephone number for customers. You should know how much the product or service costs; if there are shipping and handling charges; the delivery time-frame; if a warranty or guarantee is offered; the seller’s privacy policy and the retailer’s cancellation and return policy. Print out a copy of your confirmation page in case you need it later.

5. Will your online purchase be secure? Look in the address box for the “s” in https:// and in the lower right corner for the “lock” symbol before paying. Don’t be fooled by spoofed sites that feature convincing “security” measures. If you have doubts about a site, right-click anywhere on the page and select “Properties.” This will let you see the real URL (Web site address), and the dialog box will reveal if the site is “not encrypted.”

6. Will your personal information be protected? Read the site’s privacy policy to understand what personal information is being requested and how it will be used. If there isn’t one posted, consider that a warning that your personal information may be sold to others without your permission.

7. Are your instincts telling you to beware? Listen to your gut. If you’re dubious about a merchant; if the Web site appears to be suspicious; if the offer seems “too good to be true,” trust your instincts. Check with the BBB.

8. Is that e-mail legitimate? If someone e-mails you unexpectedly to ask for personal information, be very suspicious. Legitimate businesses do not send e-mails claiming problems with an order or an account to lure the “buyer” into revealing financial information. Pick up the phone and call the contact number on the Web site where you made the purchase to ask if there was a problem with your transaction.

From the Dec. 13-19, 2006, issue

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