Shopping safely on the web

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The New York Times' story on Tony Russo and his online sunglasses business is a reminder of how we should be careful when shopping online. Just because a website appears on the first page of Google or offers what appears to be great prices, we shouldn't be suspending the same rules we'd use when shopping at the local mall.

So here's some thoughts on buying those big ticket items online;

Know your prices
Before venturing online, check what your local stores are offering so you know what the prices are locally. For some items, you may find the nearest department or speciality store offers the best deal.

What is the list price
If you're buying a brand name product like shoes, books or sunglasses, visit the manufacturers and distributors' websites. Know the range available and what the prices are from the source. You should also note what are the current models just in case you encounter any superseded stock online.

Ask your friends
You'll find many of your friends and relatives have been happily shopping online for a while, ask them where they are buying. They'll be able to tell you what works for them along with some traps to avoid.

Do your search
Search for the products you are looking for using two or three search engines; say Google, Bing and Yahoo!. Don't just choose the first result that comes up, have a look at five or six of them across several pages.

Check their stock levels
You don't want to deal with sites that don't have any stock as this can indicate a shoestring operation. Also keep in mind if different online retailers are reporting the same stock levels, then they are probably "drop shippers" who don't hold the stock themselves but deliver straight from the distributor's warehouse. Drop shippers usually don't offer much beyond cut throat prices so be aware that after sales service is usually not their strong point.

Do some research
Once you've found what appear to be legitimate retailers, check out their reputation by doing a search on the business. For US based retailers you can also check out the Better Business Bureau or Consumerist.com. Make sure you go beyond the first couple of pages.

Watch out for shipping costs
One of the biggest traps for online shoppers is high shipping and insurance costs. Check these before submitting your order as sometimes you'll find a cheap headline price is padded by extortionate courier charges, this is a common problem on eBay and other online auction sites.

Use a credit card
With a credit card you have some protection in the event of a dispute. Other forms of payment, particularly cheque and money order, give you little if any recourse should there be a problem. Paypal isn't recommended as the service is know to tie all parties up with paperwork and inconsistent policies when there's an argument.

Check your statements
After an online shopping binge, watch your credit card statements closely for any irregularities. Keep in mind if you are buying from overseas sites that you may get stung by unfriendly exchange rates so factor those into your costs.

Take care

The old saw, "If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is" holds true on the Internet. If someone's offering an unbeatable bargain at an amazing price, be skeptical and take care.

Online shopping opens a world of deals to the canny customer and offers real value for money for the right products, so taking a little care to avoid the crooks is well worth the effort.

This article was originally published at www.paulwallbank.com

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