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Everything you need to shop smart online

Answers to frequently asked questions about shopping online, from secure sites to smooth returns.
/ Source: contributor

Tired of being put on hold by catalog 800 numbers, but not yet comfortable with Web shopping? That’s understandable. After all, it’s one thing to window shop with a mouse, but quite another to take the plunge and buy. You may fear pulling an online-shopping all-nighter, only to have damaged goods arrive in the mail. So what do you do? And who do you call?

Answers to basic online shopping concerns will help you file your shopping complaints promptly and also relieve some of your cyber-shopping fears.

Is shopping online safe?
Safety seems to be the primary concern for online shoppers. Fearing that Big Brother (or simply a hacker) is watching, consumers are often hesitant to enter any personal information, such as credit-card numbers, home addresses or phone numbers, on a computer screen. Yet oddly enough, most of us feel comfortable entering our PIN (personal identification number) almost anywhere these days.

In reality, using the Net may provide us better protection than most transactions in our daily routines. Scams and fraud exist throughout the marketplace - online and off - but there is no evidence that online shopping is riskier, said Russ Bodoff, chief operating officer of Better Business Bureau online ( As a matter of fact, “there is no evidence of anyone ever stealing a credit number through an electronic transmission,” he said. He’s sure about that because the BBB “works closely with the FTC [Federal Trade Commission], and if necessary the FBI.”

InsertArt(1902524)Experts on the technical side tend to agree. If a thief wants to get your credit-card number, he’ll have a much easier time looking over your shoulder at shops or restaurants, or rifling through the trash or eavesdropping on phone conversations. The very technical reason is: secure Web sites. And if you derive any comfort from understanding technology or you believe that knowledge is power, read on.

What makes a Web site secure?
Most e-mails and information on Web pages are written as simple text. Typing information onto a screen or viewing text is not the problem. However, when plain text is transmitted, a third party — with the right smarts and know-how — may read this text. Which means for those of us in cyberspace, if you send a message to a colleague containing confidential company information or complaints about your boss, someone somewhere may be “listening.” Therefore, miscreants, company spies or even ambitious third-graders can from time to time read the information as it is being sent.

Secure Web sites change the picture for unwanted listeners. Using a complex mathematical process known as encryption, secure Web sites prevent electronic eavesdropping by a third party. Encryption scrambles information or codes data that is transmitted. SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) is the standard “protocol” (method) to encrypt data and authenticate users.

For the skeptics out there, let’s take it a step further. It’s hard to imagine, but every recipient of encrypted information has a different code. (Remember: Every snowflake is different, and no two fingerprints are identical.) If you send the same message to Person A and Person B, the encrypted messages will be different. Person A could not read Person B’s message, and vice versa. Therefore, even if you know the encryption “encoding” - how the data is converted originally - the mathematics are such that “decoding” - deciphering the code - is close to impossible.

How can I tell if a site is secure?
A secure site has a URL address containing an “s” after the “http:”. That is, “https:” in contrast to “http:” indicates a secure site. But don’t be alarmed if you reach a shopping site and only see “http:” at first. On a secure site, the “s” will pop up once you get to the page where you need to input your credit-card number or other personal information.

In addition, most browsers have a special icon to verify that the site is secure. Internet Explorer displays a gold padlock on secure sites. Other browsers use an unbroken key.

What is a cookie?
Certain Web sites contain a special file, known as a cookie, that can track information about your visit. Cookies, as the name implies, are relatively benign and may even be helpful. (A cookie lets MSNBC know how many people read this article.) Cookies do not identify you personally but collect information about you through what you have entered into the computer or what you click on. Cookies may be beneficial to cyber-shoppers. If you frequently shop for ties at one site (that has a cookie), the next time you enter the site, tie sales may be highlighted for you

If you find cookies invasive, you can remove them quite easily. Most browsers have a simple way to either turn them off permanently or to notify you when a site has a cookie.

How do I pay online?
What forms of payment do retailers accept online? Is a credit card the only way?

In general, credit cards are considered the safest way to purchase goods online. Using a credit card enables you to contest any charges that are not reasonable (or not yours) and closely track all your transaction.

Federal law also limits your liability to $50. If you’re still concerned, some retailers will allow you to buy products by filling out a form and sending it by snail mail.

What determines if I pay sales tax?
Sales tax does not seem to make or break a shopper’s day. Otherwise, more of Manhattan’s shoppers (where sales tax is 8.5 percent) would exit the state on weekends to take advantage of the lack of sales tax on clothing in New Jersey. However, for the cyber-shopper, if a few clicks of the mouse leads you to a site where you do not pay sales tax, then it may be worth the extra effort. As with catalog companies, customers pay sales tax based on where the company has a presence, not where the consumer is located. That is, you pay the tax if you happen to live in the same state as company office or store.

What are fair shipping/handling costs?
Shipping/handling costs vary depending on the amount purchased and how fast you want the goods. Online companies use the same shipping/handling options as catalog companies such as UPS, the U.S. Postal Service or express mail. Most reliable companies will have a statement on their Web site indicating shipping/handling costs. As with any catalog company, don’t be duped into paying higher shipping fees for faster delivery when you don’t really need it. And if you receive damaged or incorrect goods, insist that the seller pay for the return shipment. Some companies even offer free return shipping to customers who sign up for a no-fee credit card good only at the particular company or its sister firms. Such an offer can be worth your while, particularly from a company whose goods you are not familiar with and may not like — all it costs you is the 33 cents it will take to mail off the credit card bill once it arrives, if you do indeed keep the merchandise.

How long does it take to get product?
How fast you receive a product after you place an order depends on the type of shipping used and, to some extent, the backlog at the company itself. Some companies are just more efficient about placing orders than others. Reliable companies will let you know expected delivery dates.

How do I return an item?
Whether returning an item in as department store, a local boutique or online, it’s usually a chore. Return policies online basically mirror those of catalog companies. If you don’t like it, you can return it but you pay the fees associated with returning the item. Some sites have unusual return policy such as if you find the item somewhere else for less, the company will refund your purchase. Read return policies carefully.

If I have problems, what do I do?
Before ordering from a Web site, always look for a phone number or e-mail address for someone you can contact in case of a problem. In addition to the customer service department, phone numbers can be found under the headings, “About Us” or “Press Releases.” If matters get out of hand, you can file a complaint online with at TRUSTe or the Better Business Bureau.

The TRUSTe Watchdog program lets you file a complaint about online privacy violations by completing a form which you can send electronically or by mail. (A picture of a dog lets you know you have arrived in the right place). TRUSTe primarily acts as a liaison between the consumer and the company. Unresolved issues are reported to the Federal Trade Commission. Complaints have ranged from legitimate scams to getting your name stuck on a mailing list.

The BBB also accepts complaints online. The “How to File a Complaint” section of the Web site will lead you through the process. Once you file, complaints are fielded to local Better Business Bureaus. The BBB makes all attempts to remain neutral while bringing together the company and consumer, whether informally or through a formal arbitration.

TRUSTe and BBB have information online about consumer concerns. TRUSTe has an exceptional Web site design and is extremely user-friendly. BBB’s Web design is a bit stodgy but offers good basic information for novices. Advanced shoppers may also periodically check out Consumer Reports Online, at, which features articles about e-commerce.

Who regulates this industry?
Internet regulation is an ongoing debate in Washington, D.C. Issues of privacy, access fees and even encryption in cyberspace are increasingly being discussed as the online market expands. The United States bans exports of “strong” encryption technology (some codes are stronger than others) to prevent electronic espionage abroad.

A few non-profit organizations help consumers keep up with the debate and provide consumer information online. The BBB launched its online subsidiary April 30, 1997, and offers a seal of approval (a torch with the BBB logo) to any online business that meets certain business standards. Currently, 2,400 businesses are listed in their online directory.

TRUSTe (, a non-profit created to build consumer confidence in the Internet, offers a different seal of approval. TRUSTe awards seals to Web sites that adhere to certain privacy principles. (Privacy statements are optional on Web sites). A TRUSTe trademark indicates that the business or company clearly states what information is being gathered and how the information is being used. TRUSTe also has an online directory of companies who have TRUSTe trust marks.

Both organizations are supported by membership (or license) fees and corporate sponsors.

Is online shopping fun?
Some non-virtual shoppers insist that shopping online cannot possibly be as much fun as the real thing. Where do you go to lunch afterwards? Well, I can’t help you in that department — you can always raid the refrigerator — but I would say online shopping has its advantages. Shopping in your pajamas (or in your underwear as one television commercial claims) seems to be “priceless.”

The value of being able to shop any time of day on any day of the week (24/seven as the lingo goes) follows right behind. And going places you just can’t go otherwise keeps customers clicking.

Teri Goldberg is’s New York-based shopping writer.