November 29, 2010

This time of year, it seems like everyone has a guide to shopping safely online. Most tip sheets focus on ways to spot insecure Web sites and harden your computer against data-stealing malware, but it’s equally important to understand whom you’re buying from before it’s too late.

It’s always a good idea to shop for the best price online, but you may be sorry if you let the site with the lowest price be your only guide. If you aren’t familiar with an online merchant, take a few minutes to do some basic consumer research on the vendor. Otherwise, you could end up like the hapless consumers profiled in David Segal‘s readable and entertaining story in The New York Times last week.

The Times piece highlights what appears to be a serious weakness in the major search engines, a shortcoming that favors dodgy merchants: While an abundance of complaints against an online merchant may show up prominently in a Web search for that seller, searches for brand name items may take the consumer straight to the merchant’s site and bypass those negative comments. Furthermore, complaints and bad publicity may even increase an online shop’s standing in the search rankings, the story notes.

If you don’t know much about the seller that has the item you want to buy, investigate its reputation at one or more of the following sites:
Better Business Bureau

Also, it’s not uncommon for bargain basement, phantom Web sites to materialize during the holiday season and vanish forever not long afterward. If you’re buying merchandise from an online store that is brand new, the risk that you will get scammed increases significantly. But how do you know the lifespan of a site selling that must-have gadget at the lowest price? One easy way to get a quick idea is to run a basic WHOIS search on the site’s domain name.

Be careful what you agree to: Check to make sure you know how long the item will take to be shipped, and that you understand the store’s return policies. Also, keep an eye out for hidden surcharges, and be wary of blithely clicking “ok” during the checkout process. This can even be an issue in main street stores: Last night, as I was paying for a prescription at a local CVS Pharmacy, I realized after the fact that I’d agreed to add a $1 charge to my credit card for a holiday charity campaign the store was promoting. As I learned when I returned to contest the charge, the point-of-sale terminal had asked for my approval for this charge, and I’d tapped the green “YES” button after swiping my card without reading the charge request, assuming it was part of the normal process of completing the credit card transaction.

10 thoughts on “Shopping Online? Know Thy Seller

  1. Russ

    Read that Nytimes story yesterday. Pure gold for the world’s cynics right there. Defense in depth would suggest relying solely on Google to protect us from these kind of unsavory shops on the web is unwise. This is one of those times when reputation plugins can really have a huge positive impact for websurfers. I’m talking about Web of Trust or Mcafee Siteadvisor etc. Most people think about them as a way to flag sites that are hosting malware, but they can also be used to flag sites that are generally untrustworthy. They will append Google search results with a handy color coded mark to quickly assess a site’s quality. Even these tools are not perfect. These tools themselves might be vulnerable to various issues such as submitting false reviews to make a dodgy site seem okay or even drive users away from a legitimate competitor. But it’s a good start, and combined with the websites posted in Brian’s article seem like a good way to help steer potential victims away from shifty online webstores.

    1. AlphaCentauri

      McAfee’s Site Advisor gives a green rating. Their algorithm looks for malware and phishing, but is very unresponsive to fraud and poor customer service. If you actually look at the user reviews, you can get more information, but it won’t be reflected in McAfee’s color rating.’s rating is user-driven, and gives a very deep red.

      I would recommend when researching a company that you do a search on the name of the company and the word “scam.” You might expect that would turn up a lot of complaints about a bad company. But you should also beware any company where such a search turns up pages and pages of glowing reviews. Why would such reviews include the word “scam” in the keywords, unless they were planted by search engine optimization firms to try to bury the real complaints deep in the back pages of the search results. Avoid companies that have so many complaints that they feel they need to hire a company to do that.

  2. TJ

    You might want to think twice before you utilize the Better Business Bureau as a reputation source.

    *Better Business Bureau Says It Will Stop Awarding Good Grades for Cash: BBB Action Follows ABC News Investigation into ‘Pay for Play’ Allegations

    *Terror Group Gets ‘A’ Rating From Better Business Bureau?

  3. Jason

    Althought I haven’t watched the 20/20 report on the BBB, I’ve previously understood that their rating system is complaint-driven, is it not? Any organisation can register with the fee and will start out with an assumed good rating and only confirmed complaints (those investigated where the business doesn’t provide a satisfactory resolution to the consumer) will actually lower an organisation’s BBB rating.

    Clearly though, if they’re giving higher ratings only to companies that pay, that’s inaccurate and misleading.

    Perhaps it would be better if the BBB had a probation period before businesses before allowing an organisation to use any rating.

    1. TJ

      Jason – I recommend that follow the links and watch the videos. They’re quite entertaining!

      1. Jason

        I should’ve read the article fully. Wow. There are some pretty serious allegations there. Though I don’t usually trust tv mags like 20/20 fully, if even 1/2 of what they say is true, we really have to wonder if the BBB-rating is worth anything. Thanks for alerting us to these articles.

  4. Batguano

    And for what it’s worth, some of those websites displaying the BBB logo, asserting that they are members, are false. After having a problem with one (and contesting charges through my credit card company), the BBB confirmed that the business had never been a member.

  5. d

    I tend to say away from sellers like DecorMyEyes. Generally, if the business doesn’t list its address somewhere on its own site, then, I usually take that as a red flag. Once, I find the address, if one is included, I try to match it to a physical address using Map Quest. Then, I look at the customer comments. WHOIS is great to see what you can find out, BBB has always been hit or miss since a company basically provides the bureau with whatever info it wants.

  6. Dennis

    It’s amazing what a good media investigation can accomplish.

    “Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) announced Wednesday it has changed its search algorithm to make sure bad merchants don’t soar to the top of search results due to strings of complaints against them.”

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