Top 10 rules for online shopping

/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Cyber shopping is not that different from shopping in the brick-and-mortar world. Both terrains have inherent advantages and disadvantages. In the physical world, you can feel the tomatoes, and everything else.

Cyberspace offers the convenience of 24/7 shopping and global access to all sorts of goods. In either world, returns will be a hassle and orders will be delayed. So choose the medium that works for you. But if you do shop online, shop smart.

1. Shop at known entities.
Any entity can be a known quantity if you do your homework. Instead of looking at the Net as a sea of unrelated competing entities, divide retailers into three subsets and attack each with a different strategy.

The first group is brand-name brick-and-click retailers, known offline companies that have set up shops online. The advantage here is if you have a problem, you can always track down a live person. In the worst-case scenario, you can make a pilgrimage to the brick-and-mortar store, stomp your feet and if that does not get you anywhere, set up a picket line outside.

The second subset of stores online is cyber-only shops. By now, many of these shops have established their own reputation. Read the papers. Ask your friends.

The last — but certainly not the least — category of cyber shops are mom-and-pop ventures online. These small cyber shops stock unusual or hard-to-find items — one very good reason to shop the Net.

2. Set your own standards. As a rule, before I consider shopping at any cyber store, I look for a toll-free number or e-mail address on the Web site. If I can’t find this information easily, I move on. I don’t care if it is a well-known retailer or an aromatherapy dealer.

But rules are made to be broken. Set your own standards. Decide what risks you are willing to take. If you find the perfect gift or an unusual item at a relatively unknown Web site, take a chance.

3. Shop at secure sites. Secure sites are encrypted or designed to prevent a third party from seeing the information. Encryption scrambles information or codes data that is transmitted. SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) is the standard “protocol” (method) to encrypt data and authenticate users.

How do you know a site is secure? Many secure sites have an “s” after the “http:” in the URL address. Some have pop-up windows that let you know you are entering or exiting a secure site. Others have a special icon to verify that the site is secure.

4. Pay with a credit card. Using a credit card remains the safest way to buy goods online. The chance of stealing a credit-card number online is less likely than someone rifling through your wastebasket for a brick-and-mortar receipt or looking over your shoulder at a brick-and-mortar checkout counter. It’s also relatively painless to contest charges that are not yours or that are unreasonable. If you have a good credit rating, most credit-card companies will attempt to resolve the dispute as fast as possible. On fraudulent charges, federal law limits your liability to $50.

5. Ask, don’t tell. Remember the consumer — not the retailer — should be asking the questions. Some queries to consider are: What is your return policy? What are my shipping options? When can I expect delivery? Can I exchange or return the product in a brick-and-mortar store? If you find that a checkout form is requesting more information than your federal tax form, reconsider the purchase.

In general, it’s a good policy to reveal as little personal information as possible. If you have to complete a form, answer only mandatory questions that are often highlighted with an asterisk. No matter what you do, don’t give out your Social Security number or mother’s maiden name to a retailer. There’s no legitimate reason a retailer needs to know this information.

If a site is questionable, take the time to read its privacy policy to determine how the company uses the information gathered from the site.

6. Don’t open unsolicited e-mails. Most shopping scams — and viruses — arrive in the mail. If you are not familiar with the sender, don’t open the mail. To help prevent future junk mail, SPAM and possible frauds, make sure you read the text carefully in checkout areas before you submit your order. Some companies automatically have checked a box that indicates your desire to receive future mailings. Unless you are confident that you want this mail, uncheck this box!

7. Look for a seal of approval. An online seal of approval shows that a company maintains certain business practices and standards. bbbonline.org, the online arm of the Better Business Bureau, has a reliability seal, which indicates the business has met BBB criteria for truth-in-advertising and good customer service practices. Bbbonline.org also issues a privacy seal that shows a company stands behind its privacy statement.

Truste.com, a nonprofit organization that promotes consumer confidence in the Internet, also has a seal of approval. The truste.com “trustmark” — a rectangular green-and-black banner — indicates that the company clearly states what information is being gathered and how the information is being used.

8. Know where to file a complaint. It’s always best if you can resolve your concerns directly with the retailer. But if you’re getting nowhere fast, consider filing a complaint with the bbbonline.org or truste.com.

Bbbonline.org handles complaints related to topics such as misleading advertising, non-delivery of goods and services, credit or billing problems. The agency does not handle complaints regarding employment practices and discrimination.

You also can file a “watchdog complaint” at truste.com if the company has a TRUSTe trustmark and has violated a privacy issue. “It looked different on the Web site” is not a privacy issue. “I have asked to be removed from a mailing list three times without success” is a privacy issue. Truste.com moderates disputes between the consumer and the company. Unresolved issues are reported to the “appropriate law enforcement agencies.”

Serious disputes, such as criminal allegations, should be reported to the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission. For cases of potential mail fraud, notify the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

9. Know your rights. In addition to snail mail and the telephone, the Federal Trade Commission’s Mail or Telephone Order Rule applies to orders by computer or fax. This ruling requires that the company ship an order within the time stated in its advertisements. If the company does not state any promised delivery times, the goods must be shipped within 30 days of receiving your order. Exceptions to the rule include magazine subscriptions, COD orders and delivery of seeds and growing plants.

10. Learn about product safety. Keep up with product recalls at the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Web site. An interactive search engine lets consumers search for recalls by month, company and product type or description.

Teri Goldberg lives in New York and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.