I write a column about safe holiday shopping nearly every year at this time, but this year is special. We are (hopefully) coming out of a pandemic which affected many of our shopping habits, and we are also dealing with some supply shortages and — in the Bay Area and elsewhere — a rash of robberies that could result in more stolen goods being sold online.
Larry Magid (Gary Reyes / Mercury News)
In past years, I would explain the basics of online shopping, but it’s hard to imagine there are many readers who haven’t experienced it by now, especially during periods when some brick-and-mortar stores were closed due to COVID. Even now, many people are doing much of their shopping online to completely avoid the risk of being exposed while shopping.
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What is different this year is the need to shop online as early as possible and the need to be extra vigilant to avoid stolen goods on platforms where individuals are empowered to sell products.
You want to shop as early as possible because we’re dealing with a global supply chain issue. Many popular and even some not-so-popular gift items are likely to be out of stock at various times during the season. Even now, you might have trouble finding some items, but keep trying. They may be stuck on a ship somewhere that — with any luck — will soon find its way to a port. Or they might be just coming off the assembly line. Do be patient but also be flexible, some online merchants, including Amazon, will show you alternate product choices, so if you’re making a list and checking it twice, be sure you have some alternate choices.
It may also be a good time to give gifts that don’t come from a UPS or Amazon truck. They could be homemade, from local merchants or handmade items from craft people you encounter in your community or online. Gift certificates are always an option, and as crass as it may seem, you may have some people on your list who would appreciate a cash influx via Paypal, Venmo via old-fashion currency, a check or a person-to-person payment system like Paypal, Venmo or Zelle.
I like to give Kiva gift certificates, especially to pre-teens and teens. Kiva is a non-profit microfinancing service that lends money to underserved borrowers around the world. The person who gets your gift certificate gets to pick who they fund from a long list of worthy borrowers. You don’t earn interest on your loan but you are almost certain to get the money back. Kiva has about a 97% repayment rate so, although there is some risk, it is very low. Older children can pick their borrowers, and when they need the money, perhaps for college, there is a very good chance that it will be there for them.
I always warn to be careful about stolen goods, but it’s a bigger issue than ever because of recent mass retail robberies. Those stolen goods have to go somewhere, and some of them are likely to be sold online. As always, anything you see that seems too good to be true probably is. Bargains are great, but beware of anything that’s priced way below its value. If you’re buying via a platform like eBay, check the seller’s profile to be sure they’ve been around for a while and have good reviews. Be suspicious of any seller that is new to the platform. Also be suspicious of any items that don’t have a detailed description or if the seller claims they were “found.” Be very suspicious if the seller asks you to pay by cash, wired funds, gift cards or any other untraceable payment method.
Even if you don’t suspect fraud or stolen goods, you are much safer paying by credit or debit card or a legitimate payment service like PayPal, Venmo, Apple Pay or Google Pay. These services generally have fraud protection, but credit cards are best because you don’t have to pay for an item you report as potential fraud until after the company reviews your claim.
If you’re buying a named-brand handbag, watch, clothing or even some electronic items, be aware of potential counterfeit. Counterfeit goods not only hurt the consumer, but have a negative impact on legitimate merchants, manufacturers and the people who work for them. Knowingly purchasing counterfeit goods may be illegal in some jurisdictions.
As always, it’s important to only shop from reputable online merchants. That doesn’t mean you can’t patronize a small online store, but do a little research to make sure they’re legitimate. If you’re not sure about a website or an app, do a web search to see what folks are saying. You can type the name of the merchant and the word “scam” to see if people are accusing them of anything, but take those results with a grain of salt. It’s extremely common for even the most reputable companies to get some negative comments. Look for a preponderance of comments or ones from highly reputable sources like a Better Business Bureau or a trusted editorial site. Look for a physical street address and a phone number, and maybe call them to see what kind of vibe you pick up from a brief conversation. For e-commerce apps, read reviews in the app store and make sure an app that’s “associated” with a retailer or brand is really from that brand and not just using their name
Look for “https” in the browser’s address bar. The “s” stands for secure, indicating that the information is encrypted. It doesn’t absolutely guarantee security, but it’s important. Be sure to use secure and unique passwords and avoid shopping from public WiFi networks. Your smartphone’s cellular connection is much more secure than WiFi, so use it if you need to shop when you’re not connected to your home network.
Of course, make sure you understand all of the charges, including shipping and handling, and know the merchant’s return policy, including when the item must be returned (many extend the return times during the holidays) and whether you or your recipient is on the hook for return shipping costs.
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Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.