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Where Can I Find Out More About Problems I May Face as an Online Consumer

Does the federal government have any information about online shopping?

Yes, the Consumer Information Center, in Pueblo, Colorado, has a bunch of pamphlets that cost money if you buy the paper versions but cost nothing if you pick them up from their Web site, athttp://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/

And for links to government agencies that deal with scams, warnings about unsafe products and consumer recalls, and health alerts, go to the U.S. Consumer Gateway at http://www.consumer.gov/

Are there any non-profit organizations offering consumer advice on the Web?

Consumer Action gives you Chinese, English, and Spanish advice and research on all kinds of shopping, not just online shopping. They provide free paper publications in eight languages and Braille. Plus, they offer links to a passel of consumer sites athttp://www.consumer-action.org/

Consumer World offers links to government agencies, consumer organizations, bargain sites, and news about shopping on the Web. They also have a robot who gets prices from discount stores, for comparison shopping, at http://www.consumerworld.org/

What can I do to avoid scams and fraud online?

Use the same common sense you use when shopping in a store. If the deal seems too good to be true, it is. If you get a queasy feeling, walk out.

We have carefully studied every store we recommend in this book, and we believe these stores are all reliable. But even these stores might change their spots. And once you venture out to the motley collection of stores across the rest of the Web, you can easily wander into a dubious site.

There are some signs to watch out for in the online world. The National Fraud Information Center athttp://www.fraud.org/ publishes warnings about scams on the Internet, most of which take place through email (fake work-at-home offers, credit repair, offshore trusts, pyramid schemes). But a few scams may appear in online stores. Here are some of the NFIC suggestions for caution dealing with an online store:

• Make sure that the store posts a phone number and mailing address, as well as a convincingly detailed description of themselves, including some real history, not just marketing claims.

• Make sure you have entered a genuinely secure shopping area. You should see an alert that you are entering a secure area, your address line should begin with https (not just http), and you should see an icon of a key (in Netscape) or a lock (in Internet Explorer). If you have any doubts about security, leave.

• Never deal with a site whose phone number begins with 809. That’s a number outside of the U.S., so the vendor is out of reach of the U.S. justice system. Also, the vendor may make money every minute you are on hold, often at outrageous charges per minute.

• Never redial into the Internet using a vendor’s software. If a store urges you to download some software, log off your own Internet service provider, and then use the software to reconnect to the Internet, you may be dialing long-distance to a site in Russia, or Singapore, without knowing it. You could end up with high per-minute charges on your phone bill.

• Be cautious about free trials. Most are OK, but make sure you are dealing with a company you recognize, one you can get in touch with directly, if you have a complaint. Make sure that the store does not convert your free trial into a surprise subscription, with charges on your credit card bill.

• Don’t buy stocks or bonds based on a flurry of excitement on a discussion board or chat session. Those forums can easily be manipulated by scam artists. Always research a stock thoroughly on real investment research sites like those we describe in this book.

• Watch out for auction items offered by individuals who want you to send cash. Online auctions result in two-thirds of the reports of fraud on the Web, and almost all of these complaints deal with individuals pretending to offer items for auction. The host often takes no responsibility for these classified auctions. Worse, if you send cash or a money order, you have no legal recourse, because the seller can so easily say the cash never arrived. Look for an escrow service, to hold your payment until the product arrives; or insist on paying by credit card, so you can back out of the sale if it goes south.

• Never use debit cards online. They are not protected against fraud. Your credit card is, so that no matter how much you are taken for, you pay only $50.

• Never give out your Social Security number. No legitimate business needs this.

• Never give out your bank account numbers. Again, no legitimate business asks for these over the Internet.

• Never respond to junk email. Anyone who sends you unsolicited offers is violating Netiquette, the unwritten rules of courtesy on the Internet. How did they get your email address? Did they ever ask you for permission to send this junk? If not, just get rid of the message. When investigated, many of these offers turn out to be pure bunk; a few are genuinely sinister, trying to con you out of your financial information or passwords to your Internet Service Provider (so they can cruise at your expense). When in doubt, delete.

• Get full information about the product, and save or print that out before you order: product description, total price, delivery date, return policy, and any guarantees.

In general, act on your suspicions. If you begin to have doubts about the reliability of a site, get out of there. You can, of course, check with the Better Business Bureau at http://www.bbbonline.org/, CPA Web Trust at http://www.aicpa.org, or NetCheck athttp://www.netcheck.com, but if a store is truly fly-by-night, they may disappear before organizations like this receive complaints. If you don’t like a store, go to another.

What can I do if I am the victim of fraud?

Gather all the information you saved or printed when you were ordering, and call the store’s customer service department. Try to straighten things out directly.

If the store refuses to consider your complaints, or temporizes, or just plain doesn’t answer the phone, you’d better talk to your credit card company right away. Give them the full details, and ask for the charge to be removed.

If you sent a check, call your bank to stop payment. (If you used a debit card, you are out the money, and may have a heck of a time recovering it.)

If you decide that the store really indulged in fraud, as opposed to being incompetent, report the case in full detail to the Federal Trade Commission athttp://www.ftc.gov/ or 202-FTC-HELP (382-4357), the National Fraud Information Center athttp://www.fraud.org/ or 1-800-876-7060, the Better Business Bureau online at http://www.bbbonline.com/ , or your state attorney general. You may not get your money back, but you are helping shut the scam artists down.