2007-09-07 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

AUDREY PHEFFER AUDREY PHEFFER Shopping online is a great convenience for many consumers. With a click of a computer mouse, you can browse the inventory of thousands of stores, in thousands of locations across the globe. Shopping with your fingers, however, can leave consumers vulnerable to unique hazards and pitfalls. To make your online shopping experience more productive and safer, it is important to remember the following tips and suggestions.

Before placing an order online, be sure you are familiar with the merchant. Is the site an extension of a "bricks and mortar" store, such as Wal- Mart or JC Penney? Or is it an online-only store with no physical retail outlets? If you are not familiar with the name of the online merchant, check to see if the site displays a mailing address, e-mail address, or telephone number that you can contact in case of a problem with your order. Some online merchants are associated with a trade group or industry group that you can contact in order to confirm that the merchant is legitimate. As with any merchant you have not dealt with in the past, it is best to do your homework before giving out your credit or debit card number.

If you have decided that the online merchant is on the level and you have selected the item you want to purchase, contact the merchant via telephone or e-mail prior to placing your order if you have any questions about the item. Also, be sure to find out the terms and conditions of your order, including whether the item you are purchasing comes with any warranties or guarantees. If you're buying from a merchant located outside of the United States, find out what currency exchange rate, if any, the merchant will be using to determine the total cost of your order. Check the website for the merchant's return policies and shipping terms. If they are not conspicuously disclosed, contact the merchant.

Keeping your personal information safe is also an important concern. Most online transactions involve a credit or debit card. Make sure the merchant you are dealing with has a secure transaction system to protect your information. The easiest way to check is to look at the bottom right-hand corner of your web browser for a small icon, usually in the form of a lock, which indicates that a security protocol is in place. If in doubt, contact the company directly and ask about its online security policy. Most online merchants use secure websites that automatically encrypt your personal information. You may want to consider using one credit card for all your online purchases. That way you can review all your online transactions easily, and be better able to spot any suspicious activity.

Some online merchants share customers' personal information, such as purchasing habits, age and mailing address. The merchant's website should have a privacy policy describing what information will be collected and for what purpose. If you are uncomfortable with an online merchant's privacy policy, you should consider finding another merchant. Online shopping can be a fast and convenient way to purchase merchandise. However, for the reasons described above, consumers need to be vigilant. If at any time you doubt the legitimacy of an online merchant or the security of its website, it is best to choose another merchant to do business with. For more information about shopping safely and wisely online, you may want to visit the Federal Trade Commission's Online Shopping website at: http://www.ftc. gov/bcp/conline/edcams/onlineshopping/index.html.

You may also want to consider visiting the New York State Consumer Protection Board's Online Shopping website at: http://www.consumer.state.ny.us/pdf/e-brochure.pdf.

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