By LAURA T. COFFEY
For many people, shopping online is old hat. Nevertheless, the following tips can help the experienced e-shopper and the novice hunt for bargains in the right places, make smart shopping decisions and protect their security.
1. The best things to buy. Shop for items that are small, lightweight and potentially difficult for stores to stock because of their abundance of titles or styles. Such items include books, music, videos, DVDs, software, electronics, computers, wireless products and specialty foods from other regions of the country.
2. Know how to search. Major Internet portals, such as www.yahoo.com, www.aol.com and www.msn.com, have shopping categories that are easy to spot. No-frills search engines such as www.google.com sort through thousands of Web sites for you to help you find what you're looking for.
3. Do homework before using auction sites. Real bargains can be found on Internet auction sites, but beware: Fraudulent sellers are out there. To protect yourself, get the seller's address and phone number and request a written statement detailing the item's condition, value and the promised delivery date. Verify the address and phone number with a directory such as Switchboard.com.
4. Understand pick-your-own-price sites. With sites such as Priceline.com, you name your price for groceries, airline tickets or hotel rooms and provide your credit card number upfront. The catch: You can't seek out a certain brand, and you typically can't cancel the purchase.
5. For the real bargain hound. Check out www.consumerworld.org, a Web site that features bargain alerts, online shopping tips and links to sites with valuable coupons and, on occasion, free merchandise.
6. Shop with a credit card. Credit cards offer you the most protection if you have a problem with your purchase. If something goes wrong, you generally will be liable only for the first $50 in charges.
7. Make sure the retailer exists. Make sure the site includes the store's complete contact information, including a verifiable street address. The retailer also should provide a toll-free number, e-mail contact information and 24-hour customer service.
8. Seek out clear shipping, handling and return policies. Read the policies carefully before buying anything, and make sure the retailer provides a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee.
9. Look for that "s." The address of a secure Web site contains an "s" after the "http" like so: "https". The "s" usually appears only on the page where you enter your credit card information. Internet browsers also display an icon such as a gold padlock or a key to verify the site is secure.
-- Sources: Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org) and the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org)
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