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Black Friday and Cyber Monday are days away. And, the countdown to Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanza is on. Are you ready to shop this holiday season?

As you make your shopping list and check it twice, you will likely find yourself buying more things online this year given pandemic restrictions on in-person gatherings and fears of COVID-19 outbreaks. Not surprisingly, online purchases are up significantly. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that consumers spent $211 billion in online transactions between April and June of this year, accounting for nearly 20% of all consumer sales. A trend that is likely to continue through the holidays.

Whether you are new to ecommerce or an experienced online shopper, it is important to avoid getting swept up in the hoopla of the holiday sales. If something sounds too good to be true it probably is a phishing scam. Make sure you are buying from a known brand, and even then make sure to check the fine print on the item’s description page because you may actually be purchasing a product from a third party vendor. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it could impact the return terms that you expect from the retailer you know.

The value of a product is the cost you are willing to pay. So do not be fooled by promotions that tell you an inflated number as the original price but that you can get it for 20, 30, 40, 50 percent off during a holiday sale. Similarly, do not be tricked by retailers telling you that supplies are limited. To keep from over-spending, set a budget and stick to it when making decision about what to buy. And don’t forget that shipping costs and taxes will increase your purchase total so account for those as you shop online.

Here are a few tips to help protect your identity and your wallet as you check items off your holiday shopping list:

  • Confirm the website that you are planning to buy from is secure. The quickest way to check for a secure site is to look for “s” at the end of “https” in the URL. This means there is encryption on the page to better protect your data. For example, when visiting online retailers, like Amazon, the URL at the top of the page should read “https://www.amazon.com.”
  • Use a credit card, or other reputable payment option, instead of a debit. Funding your purchase with a credit card allows you to dispute charges if a problem occurs. The best practice is to use a third-party payment application such as Apple Pay or PayPal. Be cautious, avoid storing personal information online with vendors, and whenever possible check out as a guest.
  • Check out the merchant’s history and read customer reviews. You can search for merchant complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Customer ratings can tell you about both the product and business. Reviews often prompt users to rate shipping, item description accuracy, quality, and price—all very important aspects of online shopping. But beware of fraudulent reviews left by of scammers, businesses, or disgruntled ex-employees. Websites like Fakespot and ReviewMeta can help you filter reliable reviews.
  • Understand the retailer’s shipping and return policies. Purchases should be shipped within a set timeline outlined by the merchant. If a shipping time window is not stated, sellers have up to 30 days to deliver the product. If you don’t receive your package when promised, and no new shipping date is available, you may take steps to cancel your order and request a refund.

For more information on shopping in the Commonwealth visit our #MAConsumer Guide to Shopping Rights.

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