Buying Online

  • When buying items from a web site or a catalog, check whether the company has an operating customer service number (preferably toll free), and lists an actual street address of its business. A company operating on a "fly by night" basis is more likely than legitimate companies to have no working telephone number or to list only a P.O. Box as its address.
  • When buying on-line, carefully review the shipping or handling charges that may apply. Many "bargain" web sites make up the difference in hefty shipping and handling charges. Some companies increase these charges around the holidays.
  • Print and save all verifications sent to you by on-line retailers from which you ordered merchandise or services.
  • If you are not familiar with the seller or the web site, do some research. You can contact the Better Business Bureau in the state where the company is located (by telephone or at bbb.com), and investigate the number and nature of complaints against the seller. Sometimes, a basic Internet search will reveal an actual chat room or web site (commonly called "gripe-sites") on which civic-minded fellow consumers have posted complaints warning of a company's practices.
  • Be careful of "sound-alike" companies that may be unaffiliated with a well-known, reputable firm. Use an Internet search engine to double check whether it appears that another site exists for the company from which you want to purchase items.
  • Always make sure that a website is secure before providing your credit card number. Secured web sites use encryption to scramble your information as it is transmitted over the Internet. You can identify a secured website by its address - it is preceded by "https". In addition, look for a yellow closed lock or an unbroken key on the bottom of your browser window, which indicates that your information is being securely transmitted.
  • Be particularly wary of vendors at on-line auctions selling "hot" kids' items. During 1999, for instance, there was a flood of victims who were scammed with offers for the year's popular "beanie babies" dolls. In 2000, similar scam artists advertised the Sony PlayStation 2, but did not deliver.
  • When shopping at online auctions, consider safeguarding yourself by purchasing "escrow" protection, available through many auction services. Such protection, which often costs a small percentage of the purchase price, guarantee that no money is released to the vendor until you have actually received the product you purchased. Do not rely completely on the auction site's "user feedback" to evaluate whether you should trust the seller. While occasionally helpful, these statements are easy to manufacture and usually will not identify any instances in which a cyber-thief scammed victims using other User ID's or names.
  • Be wary of holiday-job offers (such as "Extra Cash Over Christmas" offers) that require you to dial a non-toll free number, or that refer you to such a number after you've dialed in. You may be put on hold and incur high telephone charges, only to discover that no real jobs exist.
  • Print and keep a record of all of your transactions. If you have not received the product when promised, reach out to the company in a firm, but polite inquiry. If the company does not respond to your requests, contact the New York Attorney General, and file your complaint – forms are available on-line at www.ag.ny.gov or by phone if you call (800) 771-7755.

The best way to protect oneself from fraud, however, is always to review monthly credit card statement carefully for unauthorized charges. Credit card scam artists often take advantage of the fact that purchases increase in number during the holidays, and hope that phony charges will go unnoticed or uncorrected for a longer period of time.

Anyone who believes he/she has been charged for an item that was neither authorized nor received in a reasonable amount of time should report this in writing to the applicable credit card company within 60 days. In most circumstances, the consumer will not be legally responsible for such charges.

  • Free trials, "risk free trials," "free trial offers." Some on-line merchants offer "free" trials for products or services with a small shipping and handling charge, which you pay with your credit or debit card. However, if you do not call and cancel your order within the trial period (which may run from the date you place your order), your credit or debit card will automatically be charged the full amount for the product or service. You may even end up enrolled in a monthly membership program (see below) and your credit or debit card charged a monthly membership fee. Read the offer's fine print carefully. Check your credit and debit card statements for charges you don't recognize. The charges may be as low as $10 monthly, but they add up over time.
  • On-line merchants may offer reduced prices before you place your order, or "discounts" "rewards" or "rebates" off future purchases. These offers might not be no-strings attached. Sometimes, by accepting the offer, you may have unknowingly agreed to be enrolled in a fee-based monthly membership program from a third party for products or services you do not want or need. This has happened even when consumers did not re-enter their credit or debit card information after their initial purchase. Read the fine print to make sure you are not authorizing the purchase of an unwanted product or service, including authorizing the merchant from whom you made your initial purchase to transfer your credit or debit card information to third parties.
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