In this day and age, most Americans are very comfortable shopping online. In fact, 6 out of 10 of Americans with Internet access shop online at least once a month (source: Invesp). While online shopping is more convenient and safer than ever, it doesn’t mean you want to take unnecessary risks.
Here are my tips for keeping your financial information safe — and getting (only) what you bargained for.
1) Only enter financial information on encrypted pages
Most webpages on the Internet begin with an address that starts “http://”, which stands for hypertext transfer protocol. This protocol is fine for transmitting non-sensitive information (like requests for webpages), but when you need to transmit credit card information, make sure the address bar says “https://” (note the “s” at the end of http). This means the page uses encryption to make the page secure (using the transport layer security/secure socket layer protocol, or TLS/SSL), to protect data as it moves across the Internet.
You can tell if a site encrypts your information and keeps it safe by looking at the address bar of your browser. You should see “https” and/or a padlock icon right in the address bar.
Do not submit your payment information on any webpage that doesn’t use valid encryption to “hide” that data when it’s being transmitted over the internet (Note: the entire website doesn’t need to use https, but the parts of the site where you enter payment information must.) Also, never put your credit card info in unsecured forms or emails!
2) Look for legit trust seals
Sites can display a number of different seals or badges to show customers what they are doing to keep information safe. Some unscrupulous vendors take advantage of the confidence people have in trust seals by copying badges that they don’t qualify for or creating fake graphics that mimic trust seals. When in doubt, click on the seal to see where it takes you. A legitimate trust seal will point to an external website verifying the site’s qualifications. Feel free to do a quick Internet search on the seal provider to make sure it has a good reputation.
3) Read the reviews
A great way to tell if a company can be trusted with your financial information is to make sure they are a legitimate business; and one more way to verify that is to see what and how much other people have said about them.
No store has perfect reviews (and some review sites aren’t much better than scams either, so don’t put too much faith in a review site you’ve never heard of), so don’t let that stop you from shopping online. If it seems like no one ever receives the items they’ve paid for, however, you probably shouldn’t trust them with your financial information or your hard-earned money.
Here are some things to look for:
- How long has the company been around?
- How many reviews does the company have and how old are they?
- Does the company have a track record of responding to customers?
- Do customers indicate they would buy from this seller again?
If the retailer sells via other marketplaces, you can look for their store reviews on sites like Amazon.com, eBay, Reseller Ratings and similar sites to get a gut sense of whether the retailer you are shopping with is a real business.
4) Look for signs of longevity
How long has the company you’re buying from been around? Not all brand new companies are shady, of course, but chances are that a business that’s been operating under the same name for many years is committed to delivering on its promises.
So how can you tell if a company has been around for a while? See how far back the customer reviews go. Do you see mentions of the site elsewhere on the web? Does it seem like there are real people behind the brand? What other reputable sites/brands do they have a relationship with? (If you’re feeling especially nerdy, you can check the WhoIs information to see how long the domain has been around.)
Again, you don’t need to only buy from brands that are decades old (otherwise you’d miss out on some of the best Internet-only retailers the web has brought us), but a proven track record is one clear way to determine if a retailer can be trusted.
5) Try to contact the company and make sure they have a physical presence
To verify that the company you want to buy from is who they say they are, you might try contacting them. If you can’t find a phone number or no one responds to your email inquiry, that might be a sign that they won’t be responsive after you’ve made your purchase either.
In most cases, you don’t need to interrogate the customer care reps, but if you really love a deal and are on the fence about whom to buy from, you might feel more confident talking to a live person. You can ask questions about the store’s policies and make sure the answers match what’s on the website. You can inquire where they are headquartered, find out where their products ship from, or have them tell you about their return policy, in case you change your mind about your purchase.
Everything seem copacetic? Great! Now you just need to decide if you want to snag that item!
The More You Know …
Hopefully you now feel armed with the information you need to shop online deals safely and with confidence.
No one tip can ensure a perfect buying experience 100% of the time; however, these 5 tips together can help you avoid getting scammed and safely shop online.
Next, I’ll share additional tips for avoiding (or catching) identity theft.