Want to Avoid Bay Area Mall Crowds? Click For Holiday Online Scam First

Traffic is a mess around nearly every Bay Area mall.

Many of us in the Bay Area do our holiday shopping online. But beware of the scammers out there.

Bargain hunters will undoubtedly be flocking to the Internet for holiday sales this year, and overall, online sales are again expected to increase this season as more shoppers forego the trip to the store and tick off the names on their list from the comfort of their homes.

For the 2008 holiday season, Barclays Capital forecasts that Internet sales will increase by a solid 8 percent over last year, greatly outpacing a meager 1 percent growth in holiday sales expected at brick-and-mortar stores. And eMarketer.com predicts a 10 percent increase in online holiday sales over last year.

But the Better Business Bureau warned that scammers will again be setting up shop online this year, using low prices to entice shoppers  but ultimately not delivering the goods.

"Many consumers have come to feel extremely comfortable shopping online as part of their everyday lives and simply don't consider the increased threat of identity theft or unscrupulous retailers during the holiday season," Paula Fleming, vice president of communications and marketing with the BBB, said in a news release. "While the online environment has become a thriving, trusted marketplace, e-commerce has also opened a door and created a ripe environment for scammers to set up shop online and start ripping people off."

Internet scams aren't limited to the U.S. The BBB of Western Ontario recently reported an online scam operating through the Web site superbargainland.com. BBB received complaints from consumers across the U.S. and Canada who paid for game consoles such as Playstation3s, Wiis, and Xboxes, but never received the items. The site required shoppers to pay via MoneyGram, a money wire service, and that meant the money consumers paid was impossible to recover.

The BBB is offering 10 tips for gift givers to help them stay safe and secure when shopping online this holiday season.

Protect your computer. A computer should always have the most recent updates installed for spam filters, antivirus and anti-spyware software, and a secure firewall.

Use trustworthy Web sites. Shoppers should start with the BBB to check on the seller's reputation and record for customer satisfaction. Always look for a "trustmark" from BBBOnLine and click on that seal to confirm that it's valid.

Protect your personal information. Take the time to read the site's privacy policy and understand what personal information is being requested and how it will be used. If there isn't one posted, it should be taken as a red flag that personal information may be sold to others without permission.

Trust your gut. Offers on Web sites and in unsolicited e-mails can often sound too good to be true. Consumers should always go with their instincts and not be afraid to pass up a "deal" that might cost them dearly in the end.

Beware of phishing. Legitimate businesses do not send e-mails claiming problems with an order or an account to lure the buyer into revealing financial information. If a consumer receives such an e-mail, pick up the phone and  call the contact number on the Web site where the purchase was made to confirm that there really is a problem with the transaction.
Confirm your online purchase is secure. Shoppers should always look in the address box for the "s" in https:// and in the lower-right corner for the "lock" symbol before paying. If there are any doubts about a site, right-click anywhere on the page and select "Properties." This will let you see the real URL, and the dialog box will reveal if the site is not encrypted.

Pay with a credit card. It's best to use a credit card, because under federal law the shopper can dispute the charges if he or she doesn't receive the item. Shoppers also have dispute rights if there are unauthorized charges on their credit card, and many card issuers have "zero liability" policies under which the card holder pays nothing if someone steals the credit card number and uses it.

Keep documentation of your order. After completing the online order process, there may be a final confirmation page or the shopper might receive confirmation by e-mail. Save a copy of the Web page and any e-mails for future reference and as a record of the purchase.

Check your credit card statements often. Don't wait for paper statements; check your credit card statements for suspicious activity by either calling credit card companies or by checking statements online regularly.

Know your rights. Federal law requires that orders made by mail, phone or online be shipped by the date promised or, if no delivery time was stated, within 30 days. If the goods aren't shipped on time, the shopper can cancel and demand a refund. There is no general three-day cancellation right, but consumers do have the right to reject merchandise if it's defective or was misrepresented. Otherwise, it's the company's policies that determine if the shopper can cancel the purchase and receive a refund or credit.

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