Convenience, and pursuit thereof, will ultimately kill us all. Well, either that or incessant safety measures.
But online purchases are more than just convenient, they will also save you money when properly executed. Problem is, there’s always a catch. Within any relatively new market there are the naive newbies and the bottom-feeding exploiters effortlessly extricating the hard-earned cash from their doughy fingertips. In reality, both have co-existed throughout history and this is simply, bluntly a different medium.
With that in mind, how do you buy stuff online and not get ripped off?
FACTS, UNSETTLING AND OTHERWISE
The Big Guys
Target, Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, etc., are large, well-known corporations with corporate offices located somewhere, so when buying from one of those guys, chances are you’ll get what you paid f or with some degree of certainty and some kind of warranty attached. These guys have been at it so long and are so big that their brand of deception is 5 moves ahead of what most of us think is sly.
The thing to watch out for with them (not necessarily the ones listed above) is indirect. Newsletters, product alerts and other sneaky spammies like the cookies they dropped on your machine whilst you were transacting with them, special offers or check boxes that sign you up for stuff you never wanted and could get billed for later.
Nobody reads the TOS (Terms of Service) agreements, I mean c’mon, those things are purposely dry, boring and insufferably long specifically for that reason. But, those aren’t the problem. I’m telling you to watch out for special discount offers and anything else that either requires leaving the page you’re currently on to confirm, or 3rd party software in sneaky check boxes you miss as you excitedly click-through the prompts. PAY ATTENTION.
And for goodness sake, clean your cookies regularly (the cookies those sites dropped onto your machine are transmitting your web surfing history data as we speak, no lie). For more info on the discount scam checkout Clark Howard’s report.
The Wild West
Amazon, eBay, Craigslist, and a growing number of sites just like ‘em present a whole different set of potentially hazardous circumstances. First, there are no guarantees. I don’t care what the text says, the truth is, you don’t really know where they are, who they are or how far they will go to reach into your wallet or purse. You don’t know whether they are on the up-and-up, scammers or in some cases even worse.
That being said, I’ve probably made hundreds of purchases online and have NEVER been disappointed. Below are a few simple rules to follow:
eBay & Amazon
The sellers are you and me and there is very little you can do in the way of recourse should you experience mild or even extreme dissatisfaction with the purchase. The fate of your investment rests solely on the seller. Preemptive strategy is mandatory.
- Research the item – Google new and used price estimates and model numbers. Match your info with the item that’s listed and any pictures that may be available.
- Don’t buy large ticket items that are out of driving range – It’s a lot like gambling, so if the item is worth more than you care to lose, make sure you can drive to where the item is supposed to be located.
- Don’t buy anything from a different country – Look, if it’s a $5 pair of headphones and the seller has made hundreds of sales, big deal, go for it. But there are a lot of fakes out there, and I’m not pointing any fingers but lots of them come from China and Japan.
- Check the sellers history – How many sales have they made? What’s their rating? Read comments from previous customers.
- Try to communicate with the seller – Ask a specific question about the item. If they don’t get back to you in a reasonable amount of time, or they give some funky answer, well…that’s a red flag.
Craigslist is one of my favorites. They’ve kept the site simple and the ads are either free or very affordable. However, in that the ads are free and there is virtually no accountability nor qualitative measures taken to verify a sellers veracity or even identity, the risks here are greater.
Actual verbal conversations with sellers here are highly recommended.
Again, ask specific questions about the item.
Be very, very careful with items that cost beyond several hundred dollars. Look, you’ve got a bunch of cash in your pocket and you’re meeting up with a total stranger.
As a Craigslist seller, don’t bring the buyer to your actual residence. Arrange to meet them in a familiar public place, preferably with plenty of people around and in the daylight.
As a seller, don’t take checks and look carefully at the bills you’re getting. Counterfeiting does still exist, here’s an article about what to look out for.
Do some cyberstalking. There’s nothing wrong with Googling a name or email address to see if you can find out who you might be dealing with.
There are some great “safe” sites to purchase from as well. For anything computer/tech related – Newegg.com and Microcenter are two of my favorites. Both have detailed information about specs and Newegg’s customers regularly leave comments about the items.
Generally, a business that has a physical, traceable address is a good sign and using Google Street View you can even see what the building looks like in many cases.
Again, cyberstalking comes in handy here, google the name of the business and add, “scam” or “rip-off” or something similar to the search term and see what you come up with.
Stay local when possible. Obviously companies that are local are preferable geographically speaking, but oft times especially with larger companies, items are warehoused in different locations. However, you can still drive to the store or business should issues arise.
THE GOOD NEWS
Purchasing online will save you in time, money or both. The overhead for online stores is significantly less and in most cases the savings are passed on to you. Security encryption is improving, but you don’t have to use your bank account or credit card if that freaks you out.
Paypal ( a subsidiary of eBay) has been a trusted online payment option since 2000. You do link a credit card or bank account with a Paypal account, however when purchasing an item, the seller has no access to your personal accounts. They only see the Paypal account.
Green Dot Prepaid Cards - Relatively new, you can buy or add cash to a Green Dot prepaid card and use it for purchases and it’s like paying cash online. No personal information whatsoever. A great option for those concerned about exposing personal data on the internet.
Overall, with the proper precautions in place, purchasing online is a great way to buy. No pressure from salespeople, no driving and tons of information and reviews.
Just be smart about it and use some common sense.