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Online Holiday Shopping Tips

Now that Black Friday is behind us, it's time for Internet merchants to hear the sweet sound of ringing cash registers, even if only virtually.

Just as the day after Thanksgiving kicks off the brick and mortar holiday season, the first Monday after Turkey Day is Cyber Monday - the unofficial start of the online buying season. One reason is that lots of people shop from the office.

Until recently that was because many people who didn't have broadband at home had high-speed connections at work but even many people with home DSL or cable modems still prefer shopping on the boss's time.

Whether that's the right thing to do, I suppose, is between the workers and their bosses, but I have heard some people argue that they're putting in so much extra time at the office that they feel justified using a little of it to do their holiday shopping.

And, just as Thursday was a big sale day for retailers, Monday is expected to see a lot e-tailers offer online promotions. The only difference is that you won't have to hunt for parking spaces, wait in long lines or risk getting into scuffles with fellow shoppers hunting for the same bargains.

Of course, the Internet does have its own version of a traffic jam. If sites get too busy the servers can become congested and slow down. And while you can't get into fisticuffs with other shoppers, there is still the risk that the item you want will be out of stock when you try to order it.

Click here to listen to Larry Magid's
podcast assessment of online holiday shopping.

A survey conducted on behalf of the National Retail Federation estimates that about 52 million people (37% of consumers) will browse or shop online from work this holiday season. Forrester Research estimates that holiday online shopping will top $18 billion. That's still a small percentage of overall shopping but it's growing fast.

The reasons: more people are online, more people have high-speed broadband lines and, perhaps most important, people are starting to become comfortable that shopping online is not only easy and convenient, but relatively safe.

On that note, here are some safety tips that are worth mentioning.

First, you should only deal with reputable merchants. If you land on a site operated by someone you don't recognize, there is a small risk that you could be a on rogue site which could take your money and fail to deliver the goods or, worse, misuse the information you enter. Obviously you don't need to worry about this if you're dealing with major e-tailers like or the online sites offered by major retailers like Walmart, Sears or Target.

You also get some extra assurance if you locate the merchant through Yahoo Shopping, MSN Shopping, eBay's or ShopZilla as these organizations make some effort to check out or rate the merchants they refer you to. Yahoo Shopping, for example, handles the credit card information and passes the money – not your card number – over to the merchants.

Google's Froogle is a great way to find products at a good price, but Google doesn't provide any assurances about the merchants it helps you locate. Also, just because a merchant advertises on an established site doesn't mean the advertiser is necessarily on the up-and-up.

When comparison shopping, consider the total cost, not just the purchase price. Shipping and handling can sometimes wipe out whatever "bargain" the pricetag may promise.

Also beware of prices that are too good to be true. If a merchant is selling a product at a price far below the competition, you might want to give them a bit of extra scrutiny. One exception is the used prices you'll find on These are merchants that are rated and sometimes truly do offer exceptional prices and your safety is protected by Amazon.

Of course there are many honest online merchants that you may have never heard of, but if you do land on an unfamiliar site, look for some signs of legitimacy. For one thing, when you're on the ordering page, there should be a lock in the lower right corner of your browser to indicate you're on a secure site which helps protect your data from falling into the wrong hands.

Also, look for a site's privacy policy and look for logos from organizations that feature credential websites such as TRUSTe, Verisign, or BBBOnline from the Better Business Bureau. It's also a good idea to look for the company's phone number and street address to make sure there is a way to get hold of them offline. If you need a bit of reassurance, give them a call. It can't hurt.

Always use credit cards for online purchases because that gives you a bit of protection against fraud. If you use a debit card, check with your bank to see what levels of protection they offer. Remember, when using a debit card, money is deducted from your account immediately, so it's up to you to try to get it back if you feel you've been defrauded.

Before you start your online shopping, be sure you have up-to-date Internet security software. Viruses and spyware can hijack your credit card numbers and other personal information and if you don't have a firewall protecting your incoming and outgoing data, you run the risk of having your security violated by a hacker.

Security companies such as TrendMicro, ZoneAlarm, McAfee and Symantec all offer suites that protect you against a myriad of threats. Most of these companies allow you to download a free trial program, so, if you don't have security in place, this is a good time to get a program to at least get you through the holidays.

Always look for a merchant's return policy and study the fine print. Chances are you have to pay the return shipping through some merchants will pay return shipping costs if the item is defective. And, if you're shopping for a holiday present, be sure to look for purchase and delivery deadlines. Most merchants publish that information from a link off their home page.

The Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies offer additional safety tips on the website OnGuardOnline. You'll find additional security tips on my site at

A syndicated technology columnist for more than two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
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