Consumer Protection

Online purchases


The ease of purchasing items online cannot be denied. Most of us are so busy that we appreciate the convenience of buying gifts and necessities over the Internet instead of having to make a trip to the store. While the ease of this method is attractive, it is important to take precautions to ensure that your online shopping experience is positive and safe. Give payment information only to businesses you know and trust, and only when and where it is appropriate – like on an order form. Never give your password to anyone online, even your Internet service provider. Do not download files sent by strangers or click on hyperlinks from strangers. Opening a file could expose your system to a computer virus or a program that could hijack your modem.

  • When submitting purchase information, look for the “lock” icon on the browser’s status bar, and the phrase “https” in the URL address for a website to be sure information is secure during transmission.
  • Use a secure browser — software that encrypts or scrambles the purchase information you send over the Internet — to help guard the security of your information as it is transmitted to a website. Be sure your browser has the most up-to-date encryption capabilities by using the latest version available from the manufacturer.
  • Check the site’s privacy policy before providing any personal financial information and determine how the information will be used or shared with others. Also check the site’s statements about the security provided for your information. Some websites’ disclosures are easier to find than others — look at the bottom of the home page, on order forms or in the “About” or “FAQs” section of a site.
  • Read and understand the refund and shipping policies before you make your purchase. Look closely at disclosures about the seller’s refund and shipping policies.
  • Pay by credit card, the most secure way. Under federal law, you can dispute the charges if you do not get what you were promised. You may also dispute unauthorized charges on your credit card. Many credit card issuers have “zero liability” policies under which you pay nothing if someone steals and uses your credit card.
  • Keep personal information private. Do not disclose personal information – address, telephone number, Social Security number, bank account number or email address – unless you know who is collecting the information, why they are collecting it and how they will use it.
  • Be cautious when buying gifts from an online auction. Understand how the auction works and check out the seller’s reputation before you bid. Always ask about terms of delivery and return options, and never wire money for the purchase. Use some other form of payment.
  • Do not be tempted by offers of free money. Con artists take advantage of cash-strapped consumers during the holidays to offer personal loans or credit cards for a fee upfront. These scammers simply take the money and run.
  • Keep records of online transactions and check for emails from merchants with whom you are doing business. Merchants may send you important information about your purchases.
  • Review monthly credit card and bank statements for any errors or unauthorized purchases promptly and thoroughly. Notify your credit or debit card issuer immediately if your credit or debit card or checkbook is lost or stolen, or if you suspect someone is using your accounts without your permission.

Internet auction fraud

Some consumers like the convenience of shopping from their computer. Con artists, however, can use Internet auction sites as a way to steal from consumers by disguising a scheme as a legitimate offer or purchase.

Types of internet auction fraud:

  • Overpayment Fraud: A legitimate seller advertises an item on the internet and the scammer contacts the seller to purchase the item. The scammer sends a counterfeit check or money order for an amount greater than the item. The scammer asks the seller to deposit the payment, deduct the actual sale price and return the difference to a shipper or handler.
  • Wire Transfer Scheme: The scammer advertises a fraudulent or misleading item to be sold on an online auction site. When the legitimate purchaser contacts the scammer they ask the purchaser to wire money to complete the purchase. Once the legitimate purchaser wires the money, the scammer is never heard from again, and the purchaser never receives delivery of the item.
  • Second-chance Scheme: When a legitimate purchaser loses a bid on a legitimate auction a scammer will offer them the opportunity to buy the item for a price that is less than the losing bid. Once the legitimate purchaser sends the money, usually by wire transfer, the scammer is never heard from again and the purchaser never receives delivery of the item.

Before you place a bid:

  • Contact the seller with any questions about payment options or questions about the item.
  • Review the seller’s feedback on the Internet auction site.
  • Stay away or be very cautious when dealing with sellers or purchasers out of your own country.
  • Understand the refund, return and warranty policies of the auction site you are utilizing.
  • Determine the shipping method and charges before you buy.
  • Stay away or be very cautious if the seller only accepts wire transfers.
  • If the seller insists on an escrow service, ensure it is legitimate.
  • You may want to insure your purchased item.
  • Stay away from unsolicited offers.

If you are a victim:

  • Contact and file a complaint with the company that you used to wire the money.
  • If the item was a high-dollar item, like a car, contact your local police department.
  • You may also consider filing a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center, IC3.gov, a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center to combat cyber fraud.

For more information, visit FBI.gov.

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