Online shopping in the United States equaled $65B in 2004, and predictions for 2008 expect that figure to rise to $117B. The internet can be a shopper’s dream; however, you need to know how to shop safely and securely. Below are some considerations you should take into account before you make an online purchase.

Is the web site reputable?

If you are shopping on a site that you are not familiar with, take the time to do a little homework before you share any sensitive personal information. Check the site to see if there is a third-party seal of approval posted from a trusted source like the Better Business Bureau Online, or Trust-E. The stamp of approval from these organizations means the web site has agreed to be held to strict standards in how they handle personal information, as well as customer complaints.

Sites such as BizRate.com or Epinions.com may have information about various sites along with customer reviews. You can also enter the name of the web site or business into your favorite search engine to see what comes up. If someone has had a bad experience with the site, it may be mentioned in a user forum or consumer information site.

Is the web site using secure technology?

When information is transferred between your computer and the shopping site’s server, it should be encrypted. If a shopping site’s server uses encryption technology, your data will be scrambled and then unscrambled when it reaches the shopping site’s server. Encryption prevents unscrupulous hackers from capturing the information during transmission.

There are two things to look for to ensure that your personal data will be encrypted.

· An icon of a small locked padlock will appear in the bottom right of your monitor’s screen.
· The URL of the web page should begin with https, which also indicates that it is a secure web page.

Before you click on the checkout button, know your shipping costs.

A reputable site will make their shipping costs easy to find before you check out. To avoid any unpleasant surprises take the time to look for shipping rates. Data collected from surveys of online shopping experiences consistently show that the one thing online shoppers dislike above all is shipping charges. While it is unavoidable that you have to absorb the cost of shipping one way or another, smart retailers will try to keep these costs to a minimum. Sometimes they will do this creatively by offering you incentives to purchase more, to help offset their costs for discounted shipping charges.
Moreover, while reputable sites will have a liberal return policy in the event you are not happy with your merchandise, be aware that in most cases you will not be reimbursed for the shipping charges to return the item.

Understand the return policy.

Never purchase anything from a web site without reading the fine print – particularly the fine print about its return policy. Good retail sites will allow you to return items you are not completely happy with, but sometimes there are stipulations that you should be aware of before you order.

Is there a restocking fee? This charge can be anywhere from 5%-20% of an item’s purchase price, and is meant to discourage customers from returning merchandise. In addition, make sure you know how much time you have to return an item in order to receive a refund. Some companies seem to allow an almost unlimited return window, but in some cases, it can be as little as one week after you receive your order. You may still be able to return an item after this period, but will only receive a store credit instead of a full refund.

Following the above suggestions will help you to shop online with confidence. As time goes on, there will be an unbelievable variety of merchandise and web sites to shop. Nevertheless, you need to shop securely, read the fine print, and then enjoy the savings and convenience of online shopping.