When shopping with a cybermerchant for the first time, get in the habit of reading the company's privacy and security policies before you buy. This Financial Guide provides a handy checklist to guard your interests while CyberShopping.

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1. Check Out The Merchant

When shopping with a cybermerchant for the first time, get in the habit of reading the company's privacy and security policies before you buy. Look for the Trust-e symbol or a Better Business Bureau Online seal, both indicating that the merchant's business practices have been independently audited as consumer friendly. And log on to the BizRate.com site evaluations, at www.bizrate.com, where you'll find compilations of other consumers' shopping experiences.

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2. Be Organized

Before you go cybershopping, have a few backup gift ideas in case you cannot easily find your first choice. The more information you have, such as a model number, the easier it will be to find sites that sell your selection.

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3. Set A Budget

You may be on a virtual shopping trip, but you're spending real money. Decide what you're prepared to spend before you log on.

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4. Give Yourself Enough Time

Even if you know precisely what you want and where to buy it, you still need to factor in ample time for delivery and for dealing with problems that may arise, such as the belated discovery that an item has been back-ordered.

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5. Use Bookmarks To Compare Products

If you've found an item you like but you're not sure you want to buy it, place it in the site's virtual shopping basket. Then bookmark the page so you can easily return after you've considered other possibilities, or open a new window on your browser to continue your shopping on other sites.

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6. Know When To Cut Your Losses

When shopping online, it's easy to get sucked into a time warp. If you're having trouble finding a particular item, it may be better to log off and try again later--or perhaps head for the mall.

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7. File A Complaint

To file a complaint with the BBBOnLine Privacy Program Intake Center against an organization or company concerning the misuse of individually identifiable information that was collected from you online, click here.

The Watchdog form is an online mechanism for reporting violations of posted privacy policies or specific privacy concerns pertaining to TRUSTe Web site licensees or misuse of the TRUSTe trustmark. Click here to fill out a Watchdog form.

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8. Holiday Shopping Tips From The FTC

"The holiday season is a hectic time for many consumers. As shoppers make their lists and select their gifts, the Federal Trade Commission has prepared a few tips to remind consumers of their rights when ordering and paying for their purchases -ó whether the gifts are bought at the shops on Main Street, ordered via a toll-free 800 number or purchased online in a virtual store."

Jodie Bernstein, Director
FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection

Mail and Telephone Order Shopping
Many consumers enjoy the convenience of shopping by mail and telephone -ó overall U.S. mail order sales in 1996 exceeded $229.5 billion.*

The FTC's Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule requires merchants to ship mail-order merchandise within 30 days of receiving a completed order, unless a longer time is clearly specified in advertisements or catalog listings.

For orders that cannot be shipped on time, the merchant must:

  • Notify the consumer of the new shipping date and give the consumer the option of cancelling for a full refund. If the consumer does not respond to this notice, the merchant can presume the consumer has agreed to a delay of up to 30 days.

If the company cannot meet the revised shipping date, it must:

  • Send the consumer a second notice and, unless the consumer expressly consents to a second delay, cancel the order and issue a prompt refund.

If a consumer cancels the order, the rule requires a merchant to:

  • Make a full refund within seven days for cash, check or money-order sales, and within one billing cycle for charged sales.

Consumers should remember that the above requirements apply to telephone orders, including sales where a computer, fax machine or similar means is used to transmit an order over a telephone line. Many mail-order companies provide telephone numbers, including toll-free "800/888" or fax numbers, to make purchasing easier.

The FTC offers consumers the following advice on making mail/telephone-order purchases:

  • Order early to allow plenty of time for shipment and delivery. The holiday season is traditionally the busiest time of year for both mail-order companies and the Postal Service.

  • Keep a copy of the companyís name, address, phone number, the date of your order, the ad or catalog from which you ordered, the order form you sent to the company and a cancelled check or charge-account record.

Of course, calling a company can help determine a productís availability, the orderís total cost, and the companyís refund policy.

Jewelry
One of the most popular holiday purchases is jewelry. If youíre planning a gift of jewelry, the FTC offers some pointers for shoppers in the market for gold, diamonds, gemstones or watches. And remember -ó before you buy -ó ask about the storesí refund and return policies.

  • Thereís a big difference between 14 karat gold and gold-plated jewelry. Fourteen karat (14K) jewelry contains 14 parts of gold, mixed in throughout with 10 parts of base metal. Gold-plated describes jewelry with a layer of at least 10K gold bonded to a base metal. Gold plating eventually wears away, depending on how often the item is worn and how thick the plating is.

  • When youíre buying a diamond, consider four criteria: cut, color, clarity and weight, usually stated as carats. Each factor affects the price. Color is sometimes "graded" on a scale. However, scales are not uniform: a "D" may be the best color for one scale, but not for another. Make sure you know how a particular scale and grade represent the color of the diamond youíre considering. A diamond can be described as "flawless" only if it has no visible surface cracks or other imperfections when viewed under 10-power magnification by a skilled diamond grader.

  • Know the difference between laboratory-created gemstones and naturally mined stones. Stones created in the lab are visually identical to stones mined from the earth. The big difference is in the cost: laboratory-created stones are less expensive than naturally mined stones. But because they look just like stones mined from the earth, they must be identified as lab-created. If you want a naturally mined stone, ask if it has been treated. Gemstone treatments -ó such as heating, dyeing or bleaching ó- can improve a stoneís appearance or durability. Some treatments are permanent; some may create special care requirements. Treatments also may affect the stoneís value.

  • If youíre buying a watch, determine whether you want one that runs on a battery, is self-winding or must be wound daily. Ask if a warranty or guarantee is included, how long it lasts and what parts and repair problems it covers. Also ask how and where you can get the watch serviced and repaired.

USING CREDIT CARDS
Consumers use credit cards more than usual during the holiday season. Fraud can result when cards are lost or stolen, or when people "misappropriate" credit-card numbers.

The FTC recommends that consumers take the following precautions to guard against credit-card fraud:

  • Never give a credit-card number over the telephone, unless you have initiated the transaction and know the company you are dealing with is reputable.
  • Keep an eye on credit cards during transactions and get them back promptly.
  • Avoid signing blank receipts. When signing, draw a line through the blank space above the total, and keep copies of the receipts to compare with charges on your monthly billing statements.
  • Review credit-card accounts promptly every month and immediately report any questionable charges by writing to the company that issued the card.
  • Never lend credit cards, or leave them or receipts lying around. Never write credit-card numbers on a postcard.

Lost or Stolen Cards
If a credit card is lost, call the card company immediately. Most companies have toll-free numbers to report missing or stolen cards. Consumers may be liable, up to $50, for unauthorized purchases made on each card before reporting a loss or theft. Under federal law, consumers are not liable for any unauthorized charges after they call each company.

CYBERSHOPPING
Online shopping gives new meaning to convenience and choice. With a few keystrokes and a click of the mouse, you can shop at home -ó right from your computer. But before you "surf the Net" to your favorite online mall, here are some basic tips about shopping in cyberspace.

  • Unsecured information sent over the Internet can be intercepted. Use a secure web browser, such as one that complies with industry standards -ó Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol (SHTP) -ó which will "encrypt" or scramble purchase information.

  • Shop with companies you know and always determine the company's return and refund policies before you place an order.

  • Never give out your Internet password. Be original when creating a password, perhaps using a combination of letters, numbers or symbols -ó CUL8R or $2BURN. Also, be cautious if you're asked to provide personal information, such as your Social Security Number. It is rarely necessary and should raise a red flag.

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Recommended Reading

Recommended Books

For a complete list of consumer and business publications from the FTC, request a free copy of Best Sellers by contacting:

Consumer Response Center, Room 130
Federal Trade Commission
6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20580;
202-326-2222; TTY 202-326-2502.

MEDIA CONTACT: Office of Public Affairs, 202-326-2180.

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Government and Non-Profit Agencies

For mail order, contact either the U.S. Postal Service or the Direct Marketing Association, an industry-sponsored organization. The Association can be reached at 11 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036-8096; 212-768-7277.

The FTC also is interested in hearing from consumers. Although the agency does not intervene in individual disputes, information from consumers relating their experiences is vital to the agencyís law-enforcement efforts. Consumers may address their complaints to:

The Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580.

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