Avoid Online Rip-Offs: Shop with Caution at Unfamiliar Retailers

Whether you’re hunting for holiday bargains or searching for an amazing birthday gift for the person who has everything, your search may take you to online stores at which you’ve never shopped, companies with unfamiliar names and reputations. Before you buy that wooden watch, 3-D cookie cutter kit or remote-controlled flying shark, make sure the store you’re about to do business with won’t take your money and run. Also, make sure the product you’re buying is worth the investment.

There are four main steps I take to when shopping with unfamiliar companies online:

Visit the Better Business Bureau website. Click on the “Check out a business or charity” link, then type in the name or Web address of the company you’re interested in. Note the grade given to the company by the BBB, and scan its report on the company to see how many complaints have been filed against the business and how it responded to those concerns. I avoid shopping with any company that has less than an A-minus rating. I also avoid companies that don’t have a BBB report. Run an Internet search with the company’s name, followed by the word “reviews.” Read comments posted by those who say they’ve purchased items from the business. Did items arrive on time and in good condition? Did the company respond promptly to customer emails? Keep in mind that some companies hire people to post positive reviews on the Internet, so give more weight to negative comments. Read product reviews. You can gather valuable information about specific merchandise by reading reviews of it on retailer and manufacturer websites. If you’re buying a winter jacket, you can learn whether it runs large, small or true to size by checking out comments from customers on apparel sellers’ websites. Reviews on a sporting goods website may reveal that a product broke after only a couple of uses. Many retailers allow customers to rate products on a scale of one to five, making it easier to compare similar products. Scan several pages of reviews to look for patterns of recurring issues with the merchandise. Pay with a credit card. Many credit card companies offer you zero liability for unauthorized purchases, protecting you if an unscrupulous retailer misuses your credit card information. Also, if an item you receive is broken and the retailer won’t cooperate with your requests for a refund or replacement, you may be able to dispute the charge with your credit card company and get your money back. Some cards also double the manufacturer’s warranty on items you purchase and give you short-term protection against damage and theft of the items. Contact your card issuer to determine which protection benefits apply to your account.

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