9 Ways to Avoid Online Scams

Researching companies upfront can keep consumers from getting snagged.

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For the most part, shopping online is as safe as visiting your local mall. As long as you know what to look out for, there's no reason to battle traffic or long lines when you can just as easily order what you want while lying on your sofa. But every year, thousands of customers run into online scams. Researching companies in advance, even through a simple web search, can help people avoid such traps.

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Here are nine tips to keep you from being a victim:

Make sure you know your retailer before handing over credit card information. Consumers should always start by doing some simple research before making any purchases. Websites such as the Better Business Bureau and my3cents.com make it easy to see if retailers have a history of causing problems.

Don't yield to pressure. High-pressure sales often result in impulsive decisions. An additional few minutes for comparison shopping at local stores and obtaining the exact prices of other options help shoppers know if they are over-paying or not.

Review your credit card statement each month. If you find an unauthorized charge on your statement, contact your bank or credit card company immediately. Your bank might be able to provide other protective steps, as well, such as issuing a new card. As a final resort, consumers may file formal disputes with the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission, as well as their state attorney general's office. [See Is It Safe to Bank Online?]

If you order products that never get delivered, tell your credit card company to stop payment. According to Federal Trade Commission regulations, a company must ship mail-ordered merchandise within 30 days from the time it receives your order, unless in making the offer the company clearly and conspicuously stated some other time for shipment. This rule applies from the date your completed order is received by the company to the date it is shipped.

If the company cannot ship within a 30-day period or within the advertised time, it must notify you and permit you to cancel or agree to the delay. If you cancel, a full refund of any money paid or a credit memorandum showing your cleared account must be provided within seven days. If you do not respond to the notice, the company has a right to assume you agree to the delay.

Only two types of merchandise can be sent legally through the U.S. mail without a consumer's prior consent: free samples that are clearly indicated as such, and merchandise mailed by a charitable organization asking for contributions. If you receive unordered merchandise through the mail, you may consider it as your property. It is illegal for a company to bill you for any merchandise you did not expressly order. Your credit card company can help you reverse any payments that have already been issued.

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Beware of "all sales are final" language. Some retailers prohibit returns. (Sometimes it's done for good reason; children's bicycle helmets, for example, can't be returned for safety reasons.) Understanding the retailers' policy can prevent confusion later.

Never click on links in emails from strangers that lead to online shopping sites. Fraudsters send emails with links to sites that look like legitimate shopping sites but are actually designed to steal personal information. It's safer to find a site through a Web search or to shop online at a familiar store.

Check the protections offered by your credit card. About 60 percent of 2007's $150 billion in online payments will be made by credit cards, according to a survey by Javelin Strategy & Research. But many people are not aware of the protections offered by their cards, or they use cards that don't offer a full array of security services. Many cards, including Discover and Visa, offer 100 percent fraud protection, so if you do fall victim to fraud, they will cover the cost as long as you report it within a reasonable time frame). Card issuers also often monitor spending activity so they can notice when something unusual happens, such as a big expenditure at a store not previously shopped at.