To check on unfamiliar products and companies, search online for the product or company name, plus the words “complaint” or “scam.” See what other people are saying about their experience. Contact your state attorney general and local consumer protection agency to see if there are complaints on file.
Read reviews with a critical eye
Expert reviews from trusted websites are a good place to get information about what to buy and who to hire. Focus on sites you trust that offer impartial reviews from real experts.
Read customer reviews about a company or product from a wide variety of review and retailer sites, search engines, app stores, and social media platforms. Check several sources and consider where a review is posted, who wrote the review, and the reviewer’s history. And don’t rely on star ratings alone because some reviews and ratings are fake or misleading. Fake reviews can be positive or negative. Not all fake positive reviews are five stars. Some dishonest competitors place fake negative reviews. Also, it’s not always clear if a reviewer got something, like a free product, in exchange for writing a review. Some — but not all — websites will place a label or badge next to the review when they know that the reviewer got an incentive.
To comparison shop for a product, make notes of the item’s manufacturer or model number, plus details like size, color, or shipping fees. Use the information to check comparison shopping sites that list retail stores and online sellers that have the item. Some sites let you sign up to get price alerts when prices change.
Not all comparison-shopping sites are the same. Some may be set up by a manufacturer to promote its own products. Some may be run by companies that only list or rank products if sellers pay them. Focus on comparison shopping sites that are well known as trustworthy.
Collect information from product ads
- Learn the total cost of the product, including shipping, handling, delivery, taxes, or other fees.
- Read the terms of the advertised “deal.” For example, will you have to buy unwanted products to get the advertised “low price?”
- Read the entire product description, including the fine print. Words like "refurbished," "vintage," or "close-out" could mean a product in less-than perfect condition. If expensive brand-name items are offered for bargain prices, they could be counterfeit or stolen.
- See if a seller has a price-matching policy that guarantees it will match competitors’ prices and match its own in-store price to its online prices. Contact a seller if you want to request a match. Some sellers match or even go lower than their own online prices or a competitor’s prices.
- Find out if you can get a credit or refund if the item you buy today goes on sale next week. What records or receipts will you need?
Read the seller’s information about shipping and delivery
An FTC rule requires sellers to ship items as they promised in their ads. If a seller doesn’t promise a time, it has to ship your order within 30 days after it gets your name, address, and payment, or permission to charge your account. Many sites offer tracking options, so you can see exactly where your purchase is and estimate when you’ll get it. If you pay by credit card but don’t get the item, you can dispute the charge.
Check the seller’s refund policies
The site should say whether you can return the item for a full refund. If you can return it, find out
- who pays the shipping costs for returns?
- how many days you have to return the item?
- will you have to pay restocking fees?
Check refund policies for sale items
If you buy things on sale, double-check the return policies. Sellers often have different refund and return policies for sale items, especially clearance merchandise.
Paying by credit card best protects you and your money in case of a scam, or if something else goes wrong. Make sure the websites where you enter payment information uses encryption to protect your information during your transaction. Look for https at the beginning of the URL. The ‘s’ after http means the site is encrypted — but it doesn’t mean it’s a legitimate site. Scammers know how to encrypt sites, too.
If you pay by credit card and are charged twice for the same item, are billed for merchandise you never got, or get the wrong item or a defective item, you can dispute the charge. In those situations, ask your credit card company to temporarily withhold payment while it investigates. To take advantage of this right, you should call right away and must send a letter to your credit card company that reaches the company within 60 days of the day the company mailed you the first bill showing the error.
Never buy anything from online sellers that accept payment only with gift cards, by wire transfers through companies like Western Union or MoneyGram, or with cryptocurrency. Payments you make that way are nearly impossible to trace and reverse. Scammers often tell people to use those payment methods so they can get money quickly. Find out what to do if you sent money to a scammer.
When you buy something online, be sure to keep information about
- the company name and website
- what you ordered, the date you ordered it, and what you paid
- the seller’s return policy
- the company’s promise to ship, and the date it made the promise
- all email, text, and other communication you have with the company
- your credit card or bank account statements that show how you paid
If you have a problem when you shop online, try to work it out directly with the seller or site owner. If that doesn't work, you can report it to
- the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov
- your state attorney general
- your state’s consumer protection agency