How to Avoid Online Shopping Pitfalls this Holiday Season

Online shopping can be an easy solution to a small business owner’s hectic schedule. But don’t let convenience stop you from protecting yourself from fraud – or from getting the best prices on items that you can. Here are online shopping tips to help you through the holiday season.

Small business owners have so many demands on their time throughout the year that when the holiday season rolls around, they can easily become overwhelmed. Online shopping may seem like an easy solution, but in the excitement of the holidays, it’s easy to forget we need to be cautious when buying online. Here are a few quick tips to avoid online shopping pitfalls as the holiday season begins.

Research Prices

You can find a number of popular websites that let you compare prices for goods by typing “price comparison websites” into Google or Bing.  You can also search for comparisons of specific items  by make and model, or a slightly broader search such as “price comparison 15 inch Windows laptops.” When you look at the comparison prices,  remember to include shipping costs (most comparison sites will do this for you.) Read all the fine print on special holiday promotions. Try to buy from companies you know.

Do Your Homework

Before you order, check online for product reviews and complaints about the vendor. Search for the brand, model number, or vendor name and add the word “reviews” or “problems.” Don’t order from companies that do not supply an address, telephone number, e-mail contact, and privacy policy on their website. If you must use a contact form instead of sending an e-mail, make sure you keep a record of what you wrote on the form, and when.

Buy from Secure Sites

When you go to the checkout page to enter your credit card information, the web address in your browser should read “https,” not “http.” This means your information is encrypted. Using your credit card will give you more fraud protection than a debit card, and using PayPal will allow you to use a credit card without giving everyone your card information. If the store asks you to enter a username and password, you should not use the same user name and password you use for your credit card account or any other financial account. Choose something different (and record what you used where you can find it).  Don’t use public computers for ordering. If you have no other option for ordering online, use the 800 number instead.

Read the Shipping and Return Policies

Check prices, delivery times, backorder and return policies. Pay attention to the wording. You might assume that if you are paying for overnight shipping, you will receive your package the next day, but it may take them 3 days to process your order. If you bought a product in August for the holidays, can it still be returned or exchanged? If it’s a major store, can you buy online and exchange at the store? Are there restocking fees for the item you plan to purchase?

Check Your Statements

Hopefully you’re checking them year-round, but it’s especially important to do so during the holiday shopping season. If you find you have fraudulent charges, report them to the card company immediately. Keep your online receipts in a separate folder in your email program and/or print a copy of the final order with the confirmation/order number. You can find information on identity theft and how to protect yourself at OnGuard Online.

Beware Gift Card Fees

Gift cards can be a great last-minute gift but shop around. If you purchase a store gift card in that store, you may avoid having a service charge added to the face value, but cards purchased at other retail locations or online will likely carry a fee for purchase. Gift card and pre-paid credit card companies are allowed to charge the recipient a monthly fee after 12 months of inactivity. Check the expiration date and read the terms for purchase and redemption.

Save More Money on Your Shopping

Many major stores will send you coupons if you give them an email address. To avoid filling up your email box, consider getting a separate free email address just for this. You often can find coupons, too, by searching for the name of the store you want to shop at, followed by the word “coupons” (example: Target coupons.)

Your college student can get a six-month free trial to Amazon Prime by signing up for Prime Student  with a .edu email address. Amazon Prime offers free two-day shipping on eligible purchases to the continental US with no minimums. The program costs $99 a year at this writing, with a 30 day free trial. The free two-day shipping on items in the Prime program is well worth the price of the membership fee if you order much online. It’s particularly cost-effective when you frequently buy things for family members or friends who live in a different state than you do. Even big ticket items like big-screen TVs may qualify for free shipping!

Some stores will offer free shipping to a local store for pickup. You can also sign up for “free shipping” alerts for your favorite stores at

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