BUYER BEWARE: Tips for Safe Online Shopping
Looking for power tools? A vintage Chanel purse? A living-room sofa? Millions of
shoppers are bypassing brick-and-mortar stores, as well as their respective websites, in favor of
purchasing such items from individual online sellers. For many people, sites like Craigslist
and eBay offer a chance to save on everyday items and luxury products, both new and used—all
from the comfort of their own homes.
Yet, while online shopping may be a convenient way to find deals and one-of-a-kind
items, it's important to protect your identity and financial information, particularly when dealing
with individual sellers. Before you purchase anything listed on an online classified ad, auction,
or marketplace site, keep the following precautions in mind.
On classified sites run by newspapers and popular venues like Craigslist, sellers
tend to offer used items and may be open to negotiation. Since most transactions are done in cash,
there's little buyer protection.
To stay safe:
- Never wire funds. If a seller asks you to wire payment using Western Union or MoneyGram,
you're likely dealing with a scammer.
- Safeguard your personal information. Sellers on Craigslist and similar sites don't need
your personal financial information, such as credit card numbers. To keep your information safe,
it's best to pay with cash.
- Don't go it alone. Always take someone with you when meeting a seller. Be sure to tell a
friend or family member where you'll be, and take your cell phone with you.
- Pick up in a public place. Choose a busy location to meet the seller. If you're picking
up the item at the seller's house, it's particularly important to have a friend or family
member join you.
Online auction sites like eBay let you view and bid on products from around the
globe. Some sites also allow you to buy items outright instead of bidding.
To stay safe:
- Read the fine print. Before you enter a bid, be sure to review the entire listing, as well
as the sales policies of the auction site. Remember: you win, you pay. Once you've won an auction,
you're obligated to complete the transaction.
- Check out buyer feedback. Auction sites let buyers post feedback on their purchases, which
can give you insight into a seller's business practices. Be sure the seller has a high rating
before making a purchase. If lackluster feedback prompts you to hesitate, it's probably best to
look for the item elsewhere.
- Pay with a credit card or PayPal account. Using a debit card linked to your checking account
may not be safe, as most debit cards don't offer fraud protection. You may also want to consider
buyer protection; eBay offers such a plan that covers many items purchased on its site.
- Beware of fraudulent e-mails. After you've made a purchase, be wary of any unusual e-mails
you may receive. Avoid opening suspicious messages or clicking on links they contain.
Online marketplaces such as Amazon, Etsy, and Overstock are one-stop shops where
you can find anything and everything. Searches on these types of sites may pull up products new
and used, both from companies and from individual sellers.
To stay safe:
- Know what you're purchasing. Though they're often cheaper, used products may not be in perfect
shape. Don't neglect to read all the product details, as well as individual sellers' return and
- Look for positive seller feedback. As with online auctions, be sure to read sellers' ratings
and keep your eyes open for red flags.
- Pay safely. Pay for purchases using a credit card or PayPal, which offer greater buyer
protection than other methods.
- Ensure a secure checkout. Before you purchase an item, look for HTTPS at the beginning
of the web address on the transaction page, which indicates a secure connection. Addresses
that begin with HTTP only aren't secure.
Don't pay with your identity
When shopping online, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of finding a
great deal—or what seems to be one. But don't let the thrill of bargain-hunting override common
sense or cause you to jeopardize your sensitive information. Be sure to read the details on items
you'd like to buy and to use caution when making purchases online, particularly if you're dealing
with an individual seller.