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Braving E-Shopping Frontier

This year millions will buy at least some holiday gifts at virtual stores on the Internet. And some, about one in five, according to a recent survey, will be less than thrilled with the experience.

If you haven't tried cyber-shopping yet, here are some tips from CBS News Consumer Correspondent Herb Weisbaum.

B.J. Brandli, an experienced and satisfied cyber-shopper, is skipping the malls this year. Instead of looking for a parking place, she's parked in front of her home computer buying all her Christmas presents.

But some find online shopping intimidating. It doesn't have to be. In many ways, it's just like catalog shopping.

One good place to start is This virtual mall features established mail-order companies. Choose a product category to be directed to catalogs that sell what you're looking for.

The Web makes it easy to compare prices by using shopping bots, sites like shopfind, mySimon and bottomdollar that search the Web for you for free. These bots can be helpful if you know how they work, according to Consumer Reports.

"What's really important to remember is that the information is not exhaustive; they're not going to list every single merchant that's out there and oftenÂ…the shopping bot has a commercial relationship with a merchant it's listing," says Consumer Reports' Ellen Braitman.

Before you buy, find out the charge for shipping and handling. That can make a big difference in the total cost.

For unfamiliar merchants, rely on e-commerce watchdogs such as Consumer Reports or the Better Business Bureau. Before a merchant can use its BBBOnline logo, the bureau checks to make sure it's legitimate.

"We want consumers to feel, to rest assured, thatÂ…they're a member of the local BBB, that we've physically gone out and checked their site andÂ…that we could help them with [any] problem," says Angela Gamba of the Better Business Bureau.

One more seal of approval to look for is the Trust-e trustmark. It's awarded to sites that are up front with their privacy policies, explaining what personal information they're collecting and how it will be used.

A lot of people are concerned about using credit cards for Internet purchases. Experts say there's not much reason to worry, if you shop at secure sites with encryption technology to keep things private. And remember: Credit cards come with built-in fraud protection that limits your losses to $50, not available if you pay with cash or a check.

If you want even more security, American Express has a new card, the Blue Card, with a built-in computer chip. Instead of typing in your account number when you're online, you slide Blue into a little card reader attached to your computer. Before the transacton can be completed, you need to enter your secret pin number.

Online shopping is a lot like shopping in the real world. Know who you're dealing with, and take the time to check sites out. Read the fine print. Just because a site pops up on your computer screen doesn't mean it's a place you want to shop. When in doubt, go with familiar and trusted names.

And regarding online auctions, some sites, like eBay and Amazon cover you for transactions up to a certain amount. Don't give a cash or check to some unknown person.

You'd be smart to consider one of the new online escrow services like You give them the money. Once you get the merchandise and decide it's OK, they pay the seller.

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