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How to Steer Clear of Online Scams

For the most part, shopping online is as safe as visiting your local mall. As long as you know what to look out for, there's no reason to battle traffic or long lines when you can just as easily order what you want while lying on your sofa. But every year, thousands of customers run into online scams. Researching companies in advance, even through a simple web search, can help you avoid such traps.

Here are eight tips to keep you from becoming a victim:

1. Make sure you know your retailer before handing over credit card information. Consumers should always start by doing some simple research before making any purchases. Websites such as the Better Business Bureau (bbb.org) and my3cents.com make it easy to see if retailers have a history of problems.

2. Don't yield to pressure. High-pressure sales often result in impulsive decisions. An additional few minutes for comparison shopping at local stores and obtaining the exact prices of other options help shoppers know if they are over-paying or not.

[Read: How Credit Card Companies Spot Fraud Before You Do.]

3. Review your credit card statement each month. If you find an unauthorized charge on your statement, contact your bank or credit card company immediately. Your bank might be able to provide other protective steps like issuing a new card. As a final resort, consumers can file formal disputes with the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission, as well as their state attorney general's office. For complaints related to the financial services industry, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can help.

4. If you order products that never get delivered, tell your credit card company to stop payment. According to FTC regulations, a company must ship mail-ordered merchandise within 30 days from the time it receives your order, unless the company clearly and conspicuously stated some other time for shipment. This rule applies from the date your completed order is received by the company to the date it is shipped.

If the company cannot ship within a 30-day period or within the advertised time, it must notify you and permit you to cancel the order or agree to the delay. If you cancel, a full refund of any money paid or a credit memorandum showing your cleared account must be provided within seven days. If you do not respond to the notice, the company has a right to assume you agree to the delay.

[Read: How to Avoid Online Ticket Scammers.]

Only two types of merchandise can be sent legally through the U.S. mail without a consumer's prior consent: free samples that are clearly indicated as such and merchandise mailed by a charitable organization asking for contributions. If you receive unordered merchandise through the mail, you may consider it as your property. It is illegal for a company to bill you for any merchandise you did not expressly order. Your credit card company can help you reverse any payments that have already been issued.

5. Beware of "all sales are final" language. Some retailers prohibit returns. (Sometimes it's done for good reason; children's bicycle helmets, for example, can't be returned for safety reasons.) Understanding the retailers' policy can prevent confusion later.

6. Never click on links in emails from strangers that lead to online shopping sites. Fraudsters send emails with links to websites that look like legitimate shopping sites but are actually designed to steal personal information. It's safer to find a site through a web search or to shop online at a familiar store.

7. Check the protections offered by your credit card. Many people are not aware of the protections offered by their cards, or they use cards that don't offer a full array of security services. Most cards offer 100 percent protection, so if you do fall victim to fraud, they will cover the cost as long as you report it within a reasonable time frame. Card issuers also often monitor spending activity so they can notice when something unusual happens, like a big expenditure at a store not previously shopped at.

[Read: How to Make Passwords More Secure.]

8. Change up your passwords. Consumers are tasked with remembering dozens of passwords for various retailers, banks and accounts, making it almost impossible to remember them all, especially since they often include mixes of numbers and letters. Keep careful track of your passwords in a secure document, rely on mnemonic devices to boost your memory, or come up with some other clever strategy - but don't stick with simple passwords that are easy for strangers to guess. Also, change your passwords on a regular basis.

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