I’ve been shopping online since it was possible, for virtually (ha!) everything I can.
For me, a good year is one in which I don’t have to buy a single Xmas or birthday present at a store. I don’t particularly like driving or shopping (especially as I live in SprawlLand, making both travel and shopping innately unpleasant), so my goal in life is to only buy things in physical stores that I either happen to be in or visit regularly anyway: Everything else I aim to get online.
Besides being a computer junkie though, I’m a former educator on the topic of Identity Theft prevention, an avid follower of consumer law, a frugal mom, and I read Terms of Service and am not afraid to flex a boycott when I feel it’s necessary. So maybe something I know could be of use to you.
As always, your comments, additions, retractions, and heated discussions are welcome!
Ten Ways to Rock Online Shopping
- Build relationships with retailers, just like you do in meatspace. Sometimes you won’t have the time or inclination to do a lot of comparison-shopping, so have a list handy of stores you know you like to deal with for certain items, i.e. Zappos for shoes, Newegg for electronics, Thinkgeek for gifts, Etsy for accessories, Amazon for media…that sort of thing. (Yes, those are some of mine. Steal away. ;) Companies I will not deal with due to their Terms of Service or past problems include Paypal*, Overstock.com, any online Camera-supply shop, eBay, and most big-box stores that have online presences (because unfortunately their service online tends to be about as good as their service in real life!). [*I do use PayPal to accept payments for work, but I have a separate bank account for it, which I consider a necessity since PayPal reserves the “right” to freeze your accounts for any reason, and has been known to do it!]
- Always read return policies, as these are even more important online than in a store. It’s absolutely worth paying a little more to know that you won’t get stuck with an item that doesn’t fit or isn’t what you expected. Remember, in meatspace you can at least go down to the store and get loud and annoying until they give you a refund just to get rid of you — online, you’re easier to write off, so make sure you’re protected up front as much as possible.
- That said, try to know what you’re buying whenever possible: Either stick with brands and/or products that you already have experience with, or do some research before you spring for something. Type “[productname] review” and “[productname] complaints” and “compare [producttype]” into Google and spend a few minutes checking things out before you buy; alternately, try “[storename] scam” and “[storename] reviews”. When you get good at parsing the results of these simple searches, it’ll only take you a few minutes to know exactly what you want and what you should avoid…and you don’t have to drive all over heck and back to find the best deal!
- Pay attention to shipping: It’s not just “the bad side” of online transactions. First of all, don’t forget to compare it to the gasoline and/or time you would have spent getting the same item offline. (For me, $2.99 shipping is about the same as driving 10-15 min. each way, in gasoline.) Second of all, don’t just go for “free shipping every time” — actually watch the numbers. A great example is Amazon’s “dirt mall” section (all the used & new items people sell through Amazon) — those have shipping costs, but many time they’re so cheap that they’re totally worth it compared to the price that Amazon’s charging with free shipping! (Plus, you still have Amazon’s protection for the transaction, making these person-to-person sales much more reliable than some others, like eBay.)
- Don’t ever buy clothes you can’t measure, unless it’s something easy like socks. If a clothing store online doesn’t give you actual measurements for their sizes, then it’s a crapshoot, and trying things on through the mail is rarely worth the hassle. (Zappos is an exception — they make returns so easy that buying several pairs of shoes and returning the ones that don’t fit actually makes sense.) What I’ve found is that, for the most part, the ‘Net is a great place to buy specialty items, handmade things, and things you’d otherwise have to order by mail or would never run into…for basic stuff like jeans, usually it makes more sense to just glance through the sale-racks whenever you’re in a meatspace store and try it on before you buy it.
- Keep your info in a minimum of places: Avoid creating an “account” at every single store you shop at. Unless you plan to use them regularly, just purchase “as a guest” or “without an account” (if you can). The more places have your information, the more junk mail/email/etc. you’ll get, and the higher your chances of having information leaked or stolen. (NOTE though, that actual identity theft happens offline in over 80% of cases. Most of your risk online is having your credit-card numbers lifted, which is pretty easy to deal with as long as you check your bank account(s) regularly and alert them as soon as you see a problem.) If you want to use a “meta-payer” service that lets you put in your info once and use it multiple places, consider using Google Checkout instead of Paypal, especially now that the former is available in so many places. Also, whenever it’s not critical to use your real name, address, phone number, etc., go ahead and lie. Unless you like spam, of course.
- Be serious about passwords. The ‘Net may be more than a decade old finally, but the simple password is still your strongest protection against most kinds of exploitation. Learn how to make a good one, hide it properly (do write it down, but not where it will ever be in the same room as the computer(s) it works on; even better, come up with a code for yourself so you don’t have to ever write them down exactly as they’re used — write them all backwards, for example, or one letter/number higher than they really are), change it occasionally, and for pete’s sake don’t tell it to anybody. For using multiple sites, it can be helpfult to have different “levels” of password: One for simple stupid sites that don’t have any personal info on them; one for shopping sites; one for heavy-duty sites like banks, etc. This also makes changing them easier.
- Keep at least one fake email address — and by “fake” I mean “real, but reserved for spam”. One awesome service that makes this easy is Spamgourmet — it lets you create email addresses on the fly that can let through only a specified number of emails, or none at all, to your main account. This, or something like it, is a great way to make sure you get the “Your order has shipped” email, but nothing beyond that!
- Don’t ever conduct a monetary transaction over email. Email is not a protected method of communication: U.S. Courts do not recognize it as having any expectation of privacy (which even a phone call in a crowded room has). Keep your personal information OUT of emails whenever possible; or at least encode, encrypt, or break it up into several different messages. If you get an email telling you to check your bank account, delete it and log into your account using your usual bookmark/URL — don’t use any links in an email that involve putting personal information in. If you get an email from someone who wants to do business with you, it’s a scam (unless you contacted them first, or they’re responding to your Craigslist ad, etc., in which case the monetary-transaction part should either happen offline with cash, or online via credit-card if you accept payments that way). Your personal info should never travel over email in a chunk (such as name/address/phone/birthday) without encryption (non-techies, try a service like Hushmail). Your SSN, credit card number, bank account number, and passwords should never travel over email, period; but if it’s really unavoidable, at least make sure you’re only communicating with someone you damn well certainly know (and can personally kick the ass of if the info gets out), and delete all the emails (*really* delete them) later. If you have to tell someone (like a forgetful family-member) a password or credit-card number, it’s actually safer to use chat services than email, since those don’t usually store messages as long. Still, don’t send your credit-card number in the same communication as your name or address; or your password along with your username.
- Know (and use!) your online superpowers. Being online gives you quite a bit of access to useful information that can really beef you up as a shopper. Besides being able to read reviews and check for scams before you buy, you can use sites like GetHuman to cut your way through customer-service mazes, or leverage well-known blogs like The Consumerist or Rip-Off Report to put pressure on an underperforming company. Many companies now have a Twitter feed that, due to its public nature, can get your problems resolved faster. You also have access, thanks to the Mighty Internet, to all the consumer protection laws in your state — Use them! (Google is your friend; and once you’re looking at that huge dump of legal text, use CTRL-F to zero in on certain words and phrases.) Even if you never hire a lawyer, you’d be amazed what being able to say “Well, what you’ve just told me clearly violates Section 3 of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, so you’d better get me your supervisor” can do! …Oh, but don’t be afraid to hire a lawyer for consumer issues: most violations of U.S. consumer law include automatic payment of your attorney fee if the company is guilty, so most consumer law attorneys will try a likely-sounding case for free. (Plus, the best lawyers for trying online-based consumer law cases…are easy to find online!)
…There, now I can say I’ve been useful and non-flaky at least once this week. ;)