Five words of caution for online holiday shopping from the Illinois CPA Society 

onlineshoppingRecent Google/OTX Consumer data shows 64% of consumers have yet to complete their holiday shopping. And if 2008 shopping patterns are any indication, according to comScore Inc., the busy days for online shopping are just ahead. Last year the week before Christmas accounted for 20% of online sales. 

When you’re in a hurry, online shopping may be quick and easy, but you need to be just as aware of what you’re doing as if you were shopping in a crowded mall.

Don’t make costly mistakes as you rush to get your shopping done. The Illinois CPA Society offers these words of caution to last minute online shoppers:

1. Know who you’re buying from. Is this a legitimate business with a real address and phone number? Make sure there is a customer service contact for any problems you may experience. If this is not a company you’re familiar with or have done business with before, find out if they are a valid business; ask friends and family if they’ve shopped at the site. At this time of year, be especially careful with one-time offers or spam emails offering incredible deals that may be generated by questionable sources.

2. Watch for the “lock” security symbol. Only do business with sites displaying this symbol indicating they are a secure site. Also look in the address box for the “s” in https:// or right click anywhere on the page and select “Properties” to see the real URL and the dialog box will show if the site isn’t encrypted. Giving card numbers and personal information over a non-secure site exposes your personal information to hackers and identity thieves. Don’t give out any more personal information than is necessary to complete the purchase by answering surveys, pop-up window questions or email messages claiming to need more financial information because of a problem with your order or account. Also read the company’s privacy policy to see if they share your information.

3. Double check what you’re buying. The picture looks pretty, but is that what you’ll get? Is it as large or as small as it seems? Again, take time to read the description. What kind of quality are you getting for your money and is it what you really want – the right color, material and size? Is the item new or reconditioned? Do some comparison shopping on other sites to make sure you’re getting the best price. 

4. Read the fine print. Find out important details about hidden costs. Don’t quickly click to the next step without knowing what you’ve agreed to pay. Are there any additional handling or shipping costs – particularly with a rush delivery – that can greatly increase the cost of the item? Can you return the item or get a refund or will you be stuck with an unwanted or damaged gift? What is the policy on closeouts – are they a final sale? Do you pay to ship an item back to the supplier? Is there any reimbursement if the item is not shipped on time or doesn’t meet your expectations? 

5. Keep records. Don’t lose track of your spending. It’s easy to move from site to site and just keep buying without realizing how much you’re spending. You don’t have the same kind of store receipts as reminders of what you’ve purchased. For each purchase, copy the screen with all the details of the transaction and either create a file on your computer for it or print the page to file with your other records. Also review all the information to be sure it’s correct before you pay for it. It’s also a good idea to keep records of all your holiday shopping receipts in one place; see if they match your holiday budget and use them to plan for next year.

When shopping online, it may be best to use a credit card for your purchases because under federal law the shopper can dispute charges if an item is not received. Shoppers also have dispute rights if there are unauthorized charges on their credit card and many cards have “zero liability” policies for charges made if someone steals your credit card number and uses it. And of course, don’t forget to protect your computer. It should have a secure firewall and the most recent updates installed for spam filters, anti-virus and anti-spyware software.
About the Illinois CPA Society  The Illinois CPA Society, founded in 1903, is the fifth largest state CPA Society in the nation, with more than 24,000 members. It is the premier professional organization that represents CPAs in Illinois. During its over 100 years of existence, the Society has advanced the highest ethical and financial standards of the profession, and has been a leader in educating the public on financial issues.