Is this site secure? Secure sites use encryption to scramble information so that only the intended party can read it. How do you know if a site is secure? You'll see a pop-up message in your browser and a locked lock icon will appear at the bottom of your browser.
Is this vendor reputable? Look for the company's physical address and phone number. If something looks suspicious, check the company's reliability with an organization like the Better Business Bureau. More than 20 BBBs provide business reliability reports online, and others provide them by call, fax or e-mail. The following sites evaluate the performance and reliability of e-tailers:
Bizrate.com Ranks customer-rated merchants by performance.
ePublicEye.com Companies listed in this "Safer Shopping Network" agree to be constantly monitored for reliability and customer satisfaction.
What is the retailer's return policy? Research each merchant's refund and return policies. If you are unhappy with the product, will it be easy to return? Some sites, like KBKids.com, allow you to return merchandise to a brick-and-mortar store near you. Many others will expect you to foot the bill for shipping returned merchandise.
What will it cost to ship the product? Make sure that shipping and handling charges are clearly disclosed. The best sites tell you what you'll pay for delivery before you fill out the order form. But in other cases, you can usually cancel the order after filling out the order form, but before accepting the terms.
How long will it take to arrive? If you need the product or service to arrive within a certain time frame, check to see what guarantees the merchant can make.
What is the store's phone number? Print out a copy of your order and a confirmation number for your records. This information will prove useful if you need to contact the company later. If the merchant provides a customer service phone number, jot this down for future reference.
Does this retailer accept credit cards? Buying with a credit card is the safest way to shop online. If your purchase doesn't live up to claims advertised by the retailer or if goods aren't delivered as promised, you can contest the charges. Some card issuers offer special credit cards that guarantee 100% of online purchases. Most cards limit your personal liability to $50. If you pay with a check, you won't have the same protection.
Are they asking for unnecessary information? When you place an order online, you usually have to fill out a form with personal information. Some is necessary (they need your address to ship the goods, your phone number in case there's a problem, etc.). Other information, such as your income level or age, is not. Many merchants will place an asterisk next to required fields. Answer only those questions and never give out your social security number. There is no reason an online merchant would need this information, and it could be used to steal your identity.
Does this offer sound too good to be true? It could be. The following sites keep an eye out for fraudulent vendors. Visit their sites for more information on avoiding scams: