CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Consumers who plan to skip the crowds by shopping online this holiday must take steps to protect their money and their personal information, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said.
"Buying gifts online may help you avoid long lines and crowds, but with convenience comes some risks," Cooper said. "Use caution when you shop online to save money and prevent stress during this busy season."
Cooper offered the following tips to help holiday shoppers protect themselves from cybercriminals and bad business deals.
• Shop sites you know and trust. If an online merchant is new to you, research it with the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division and your local Better Business Bureau. You can also check online reviews to spot potential problems. Watch out for copycat websites that try to trick you by looking like a legitimate company's site.
• Do your own price comparison. Just because a website claims to beat prices at competitor sites or brick-and-mortar retailers doesn't mean it's true. To get the best deals, compare prices online and off. Also, beware of counterfeit or knockoff products that may be poor quality.
• Read the return policy carefully. Merchants aren't required by law to accept returns. Some online retailers won't let you return items to their local stores, while others charge a restocking fee or won't let you return opened items. Many online retailers require you to pay for shipping if you need to make a return or exchange.
• Know how to contact the company if problems arise. Get the company's street address and telephone number and verify them before you place an order. Remember to be especially careful when shopping overseas sites, since no U.S. or state agency has legal authority over business deals with companies in other countries.
• Check site security before you enter any payment information. Look for a lock icon on the website and a web address that starts with "https."
• Consider paying by credit card. If your order doesn't arrive or isn't what you expected, you can dispute it with your credit card company. Federal law also limits your liability to $50 if your credit card number gets stolen. Get a credit card with a low limit that you use only for online shopping.
• Be wary of pop-ups at the end of an online purchase that offer you money off your next purchase. These can wind up signing you up for discount clubs, travel memberships or other services you don't really want, with fees appearing later on your credit card or bank statement. We recently won a settlement against one company that had used these pop-ups to trick customers.
• Ask when your order will arrive. Internet and catalog shoppers are protected by the Federal Mail Order Rule. By law, a company is required to ship your order within the time stated. If you aren't given a delivery date, the company has 30 days once your order is received. If the item doesn't ship on time, the seller must let you know and allow you to cancel for a full refund.
• Print out and save records of all online orders. Keep the product description, price, online receipt, order number and customer service number. Save any emails the company sends you confirming your purchase or updating you on the status of an order.
• Review your credit card statements. Some consumers have complained about unauthorized charges billed to their account after they shop online. Contact your credit card company immediately to report any charges you didn't authorize, and request a refund and a new card.
• Protect your identity. Guard your Social Security, driver's license and bank account numbers when you shop online. Only share financial information via secure sites, never by email. Don't respond to unsolicited emails or telemarketing calls that ask for your personal information.
"Whether you're shopping online or at the mall, be careful," Cooper said. "You keep your wallet in a safe place when you go shopping and it's just as important to guard your money and your personal information when you shop online."
To check out a company with the Attorney General's Office or file a consumer complaint, call 1-877-5-NO-SCAM toll-free within North Carolina. Consumers can also file complaints online and get more holiday shopping tips at http://www.ncdoj.gov.