Online shopping can seem like the ultimate in instant gratification. However, while the ability to buy pretty much anything you want from the comfort of your own home presents incredible benefits, it can also get out of hand pretty quickly. Overspending and draining your bank account is one of the more common pitfalls – but it might not even be the worst, particularly when you consider how shopping online can jeopardize your identity.
Generally, you should feel comfortable purchasing items online. However, that doesn’t mean you should click “buy” before adequately educating yourself. As long as you’re aware of the most prevalent mistakes made by online shoppers and how to best avoid them, there shouldn’t be any problem hunting down that perfect item and scoring the best price.
Top Online Shopping Mistakes You Should Avoid
1. Saving Your Personal Information
A few months ago, I logged into one of my favorite shopping sites to track a package in transit. To my surprise, someone had hacked into my account to purchase several gift cards with my saved credit card information. Luckily, the store recognized the transaction as fraudulent before the order processed, but I still learned a valuable lesson.
The convenience of saving your personal information for future purchases is certainly appealing, but there are plenty of risks associated with it – your personal account being targeted is just one. For instance, if an entire retail site is compromised, account information is the first data that perpetrators go for, making everyone vulnerable.
Additionally, from a personal finance standpoint, you’re probably much more likely to spend money if your credit card information is already saved to your account, requiring only a few clicks to purchase an item. Physically tracking down your card and typing in the numbers manually gives you more time to rethink the purchase and make sure it’s something you really need.
Remember: While it’s okay to open an account with a username and password, you should never save credit card information on a retail website, no matter how secure it may seem.
2. Not Shopping Around
Would you pay more for the same item at a brick-and-mortar store if another just a few feet away sold it for a better price? Probably not. However, consumers often do not take the time to shop around online.
Google Shopping is one of the best available resources for comparison shopping. It instantly checks prices at a number of online retailers, helping you to make an informed decision. Of course, you still need to consider store ratings, shipping prices, and return policies – but comparing prices is a great way to start any online shopping experience.
3. Shopping Without a Coupon
Coupon codes represent another great way to save money – if you’re willing to do the footwork. The vast majority of online retailers offer this capability, but it takes a little elbow grease to find the best ones. While some stores advertise coupon codes at the top of their webpages, there are plenty of other resources for sniffing them out.
RetailMeNot and CouponCabin both compile searchable lists of coupon codes that can easily be copied and pasted during the checkout process for extra savings. For example, if you’re buying a new MP3 player from Best Buy, just search for “Best Buy coupon codes” and you could save big bucks with just a few seconds’ work. This process is so painless that it should be an automatic part of anyone’s e-commerce experience.
4. Ignoring Shipping
Ignoring shipping costs when shopping online can mean spending a lot more than you think. When you search for items online, make sure you filter results based on price plus shipping to get the most accurate number possible. Always check individual store policies, as well – particularly if you’re shipping overseas, which can be quite expensive. And always check to see if you can purchase an item from an online shopping site offering free shipping.
Also, be sure to find out each store’s policy for return shipping: Who is responsible if you need to send an item back? If you’re stuck with the bill, you might want to add that into the cost of the item before you buy, or find a retailer with a more generous policy.
5. Not Reading the Return Policy
It is always essential that you read the return policy whenever shopping online. Apart from knowing who is financially responsible for return shipping, you should find out how long a window you have to return an item, and whether a restocking fee is assessed.
Sometimes, returning an item is so expensive that it’s actually cheaper to cut your losses and donate it to a local charity. Don’t put yourself in that position.
6. Skipping Reviews
Hell hath no fury like a consumer scorned, so when one has a bad experience, the Internet can be a very useful sounding board. By the same token, it’s also the ultimate forum for people to gush with praise over their favorite products and stores, giving you the best of both worlds. Always read reviews on the item you’re purchasing, as well as the store you’re purchasing it from. This can give you a better sense of product quality, user experience, and overall security.
There are a lot of opinions out there, and wading through them all can be overwhelming. My trick is to read the three-star reviews. Since they’re middle-of-the-road, they tend to offer more pros and cons. Five-star reviews can be inflated, while one-star reviews may be coming from consumers who are never happy.
7. Using Public WiFi
Shopping over public WiFi at the cafe might seem like a good way to pass the time, but be careful. Information sent via insecure or public connections can be easily compromised by hackers, so it’s best to wait until you’re home and on a private network before sending your credit card information.
The same goes for logging into your online bank portal via public connection, or any other secure site that uses important personal information. Wait until you get home or you could be putting yourself at risk.
8. Using Your Debit Card
I always use a separate credit card specifically for online shopping. That way, any would-be hackers only have access to that one card. If it falls into the wrong hands, you can easily remedy the situation with a call to the credit card provider, especially for cards with fairly low limits.
On the other hand, using a debit card gives hackers access to your personal bank accounts and personal money. Trying to get that cash back can be much more difficult, and it may even require closing your account.
Save yourself the hassle. Get a low-limit credit card to use for online shopping, and pay it off each month. Not only does this protect your bank account, it helps to build your credit score.
9. Ordering From Insecure and Unknown Sites
For any given product, hundreds of retailers could be fighting for your dollar. But not all websites are the same, and some can be downright sketchy. If you don’t take the time to check a site’s security credentials and reputation, you could end up paying a steep price.
My mother-in-law recently learned this the hard way. After purchasing some craft supplies from an unknown site, her credit card information was stolen and used to make fraudulent online purchases.
To protect yourself from that possibility, there are a few moves you can make. First, run a quick search to read store reviews and check a retailer’s online reputation. If there are no reviews or ratings, be wary – it could be a new storefront set up solely to counteract past negative ratings and reviews. Entire websites are devoted to helping you out with this – my favorite is ResellerRatings. Next, when entering the checkout portion of your shopping experience, you should see the beginning of the website URL change from “http” to “https” to denote a secure connection.
Always purchase from trusted sellers and resellers. Don’t chance your information with a retailer that offers rock-bottom prices, but no security.
10. Signing Up for Deal Emails
I’ve definitely fallen prey to retailer emails. Usually, you’re either signed up automatically during the purchase process, or you do so voluntarily to get a discount on an order. However, the subsequent problem is that you then get near-daily emails proclaiming a never-ending slew of sales and discounts. These emails can tempt you to spend more, turning one purchase into several – exactly what retailers want.
You can opt out of deal subscriptions as soon as they hit your inbox – check the bottom of the email for opt-out instructions, required by the FTC. If you really do want to receive the emails, use a secondary email address. This allows you to sign in periodically and wade through emails in batches so you’re not as tempted to spend on a daily basis.
11. Not Checking the Size Chart
If you’re purchasing clothing or shoes online, be aware that every retailer, brand, and model has the potential to be completely different. I’ve ordered many an ill-fitting dress because I simply assumed I’d be a certain size. Checking size charts can give you a better idea of how different garments fit, allowing you to order based on your measurements rather than your usual size.
Keep a reminder by the computer of your current measurements and typical size for your favorite online retailers. That way, you can refer to it quickly while shopping, and be sure that when an item arrives you won’t be scrambling for a return label.
12. Signing Up for a Free Trial
Scoring a free trial for a shopping membership sounds awesome, especially if it means getting perks like free shipping and product discounts. If you do sign up for one, though, make sure it’s truly free.
Some free trials require credit card numbers, with the retailer promising it won’t be charged if you cancel service before the trial period ends. That’s fine, but certain retailers make it notoriously hard to cancel accounts, practically forcing you into a long-term membership. The truth is, there are so many options, prices, and discounts online that you rarely need the trial benefits anyway – skip it if it looks like a trap.
Online shopping can mean a world of discounts, infinite selection, and an easy purchasing experience, but it can also be dangerous. Whether it compromises your identity or your budget, the repercussions can be serious and long-lasting. By all means, find deals and use discounts to get the best item for the best price, but make sure you’re doing so safely, or you could suffer the consequences.
Do you have any tips for being smart and safe while shopping online?