By Andrew Housser
Online shoppers are expected to spend more than $54 billion this holiday season. That is a 17 percent increase from 2011. In fact, nearly a fourth of all retail holiday shopping now takes place on the Web. Online shopping is fast and easy. Even better: You do not have to fight for a parking space, brave the crowds at the mall, or even change out of your pajamas.
You do need to exercise extra caution, though, when making purchases on the Web. Heed this advice to have a safe online shopping experience during the holidays and into the new year.
1. Protect yourself.
Every computer in your home should be protected with anti-virus and anti-spyware programs. Make sure these are current. If you set up an account at an online store, be creative with your password. Never use obvious information such as birthdays, maiden names, family names or consecutive numbers. It is best to incorporate a random mix of numbers, symbols and lower-case and upper-case letters and to use a different password for each store account. You can keep track of your various passwords via free, secure database sites like KeePass and LastPass.
2. Shop securely.
Only make purchases from secure websites. Avoid submitting your credit card or PayPal information online via public networks, like those at libraries or coffee shops. Before placing an order on the checkout page, look for "https" preceding the domain name in the status bar (the "s" stands for secure), or a padlock icon at the bottom right of the sign-in and checkout screens. Sites with secure connections are less likely to be hacked.
3. Watch out for copycats.
Copycat businesses slightly alter the Internet addresses of legitimate online retailers and then sell you shoddy goods or collect your credit card information for scammers. To avoid, carefully read the domain name or Internet address of every site you visit. Be wary of any site that has extra words or letters, misspellings, or anything but the usual .com or .org ending. Most legitimate retailers supply a phone number and a physical address. If you cannot locate this, or if you call the number and reach voicemail or a fax, shop elsewhere.
4. Search for discounts and codes.
During the holidays, many retailers offer free shipping or other deals, such as half-off sales and buy one/get one free sales. For many deals, the key is finding promotional codes to enter at checkout. Check sites including FatWallet and DiscountCodes, or comparison sites like Pronto and Shopping.
5. Pay with the right plastic.
Online shopping is one place where it makes sense to make a purchase on credit. When you pay with a debit card, you potentially open up your bank account to hackers. Credit card companies also offer more fraud protection. Never allow a website to store your credit card number, however. This is the type of information hackers want. Before clicking the "buy now" icon, double-check your order to ensure you put the right item and quantity in your virtual shopping cart. Save emailed receipts. Carefully look over your credit card statements each month to verify amounts for online purchases and to make sure there are no fraudulent charges. Another option is to pay with PayPal, which keeps your information private from retailers, and allows shoppers to pay with a credit card or directly from a bank account.
6. Read the return policy.
Free shipping is a great buying incentive. However, you will likely have to pay charges for returns, if needed. Some retailers allow you to return online purchases to local stores. But before buying, make sure return fees are reasonable and the business doesn't charge a restocking fee. Find out how long you have to return an item, especially if you are shopping early and the holidays are more than 30 days away. Also, find out how easy it is for the gift recipient to make a return or exchange.
Shopping the Web is a great way to search out good deals and stretch your holiday dollars. Both consumers and retailers can benefit from the convenience of at-home shopping. Good retailers have worked hard to make the shopping experience safe and secure for everyone. Exercise caution so that you do not let a Grinch-like scammer put a damper on your festivities.
Andrew Housser is a co-founder and CEO of Bills.com, a free one-stop online portal where consumers can educate themselves about personal finance issues and compare financial products and services. He also is co-CEO of Freedom Financial Network, LLC providing comprehensive consumer credit advocacy and debt relief services. Housser holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University and Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College.