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People used to have to go to stores to comparison shop, and clip paper coupons to get good deals. Technology means we can shop from home, but we still need to comparison shop, read reviews, and check on the terms of a deal. With so many choices online, it pays to do research before you buy, and to keep records to make sure you can hold a seller to its promises.

Learn About Sellers and Products

If you don’t know a product or the company that sells it, check it out before you buy. Search online for the product or company name, plus “complaint” or “scam” to see what other people are saying. And contact your state attorney general and local consumer protection agency to see if there are complaints on file.

Another good way to check on a seller is to confirm it has a real physical address and phone number, which you can use if you have questions or problems.

Read reviews with a critical eye

Online reviews can help you decide what to buy and who to hire. Expert reviews from trusted websites are a very good place to start. Focus on sites that you know are credible and that offer impartial reviews from real experts.

Reading customer reviews can tell you more about a company or product. You can find them on a wide variety of review and retailer sites, search engines, app stores, and social media platforms, among other places. When you use these reviews, check several sources and think about where a review is posted, who wrote it, and the reviewer’s history. And don’t rely on star ratings alone. Why? Because some reviews and ratings are fake or misleading, and it can be hard to tell fake from real ones. Note that not all fake reviews are positive. Some are negative reviews placed by dishonest competitors. Also, you won’t always know if a reviewer got something, like a free product, in exchange for writing a review. Some websites will place a label or badge next to the review when they know that the reviewer got an incentive — but not all sites do that.

Comparison Shopping

Before you start comparison shopping for a product, make note of the item’s manufacturer or model number, plus details you want to check, like size, color, or shipping fees. Use the information on comparison shopping sites that list retail stores and online sellers that have the item. If you don’t find a competitive price right away, see if the site lets you sign up to get price alerts when prices change.

Keep in mind that 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 to do so. Focus on comparison shopping sites that are well known as trustworthy.

When you look at product ads

  • Be sure you know the total cost, including shipping, handling, delivery, taxes, or other fees.
  • Consider whether an advertised “deal” is really a good deal for you. For example, if you have to buy more than you want or need to get a good price, it may not be worth it.
  • Check to see if the advertised “sale” price is really the seller’s lowest price. Some sellers may put something on sale for a limited time; others may discount that price every day.
  • Read the product description carefully, including the fine print. Words like "refurbished," "vintage," or "close-out" could mean a product in less-than perfect condition. And if you see famous, brand-name items selling for bargain prices, they could be counterfeit or stolen.
  • Look for price-matching policies and contact a seller if you want to request a match. Some sellers will match or even go lower than 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?

Delivery, Return, and Refund Policies

Before you buy, find out what the seller says about shipping and delivery.

A 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.

Check the seller’s refund policies.

The site should tell you if 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.

Pay by Credit Card When Possible

Before you pay, make sure the website 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.

The law says you can dispute the charges if you pay by credit card and are charged twice for the same item, or are billed for merchandise you never got, or already returned. In those situations, ask your credit card company to temporarily withhold payment while it investigates. To take advantage of this right, you 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 by gift cards, money transfers through companies like Western Union or MoneyGram, or 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.

Keep Records

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 promises
  • all email, text, and other communication you have with the company
  • your credit card or bank account statements that show how you paid

Check the Site’s Privacy Policy

The privacy policy should let you know what personal information the site is collecting, why it’s being collected, and how it’ll be used. If you can't find a privacy policy, can’t understand it, or don’t like how the site will use your information, consider going to a different site.

Report Problems

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: