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3 Tips for Safer Holiday Shopping Online

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For Women & Co. by Mercedes Cardona, OMH Communications

Online sales are expected to grow by about 15 percent this holiday season, and nearly half of us will buy some gifts online this year, according to a survey from the consulting firm Deloitte.

Like pickpockets in crowds, scammers can take advantage of all that added traffic online. Phishing and "brandjacking" scams have a better chance of slipping by in the flood of holiday emails.

So to get a good deal, you will need to be careful. "As the saying goes, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is," said Te Smith, Vice President of Communications at brand protection company, MarkMonitor. The firm's studies in past holiday seasons have found a large number of Web sites that advertise online are selling counterfeit copies of popular products.

Don't fall for the shady Web site offering tablets half-off or same-day shipping on toys no store has left in stock. Follow these three tips to keep your purchases safe and secure:

1. Be site savvy.
Take your time to examine any site you shop in to make sure you're not in a counterfeit store. Don't rush to answer emails with deals that promise you "today only" deals and warn you that time is running out.

Scammers will register a misspelled web address, a practice known as "typosquatting," said Smith. Read the Web site's address carefully; if the spelling is off, it's a scam. Also look through a few pages before you shop. "Brandjackers aren't always so careful about the About page, or an FAQ page or the 'company' parts of their site," she said. "That's where you may see unprofessional pages full of misspellings, poor English, or other tip-offs." Look for a return policy and privacy policy on the merchant's site. Scammers don't usually bother with that detail.

2. Put up your defenses.
'Tis the season to get viruses, along with all the e-cards and seasonal screensavers. So, install some antivirus software and update it before you start your holiday shopping to keep scammers from sneaking in spyware and viruses.

Watch out for emails claiming to be from package-delivery companies with links to tracking information, warns the Better Business Bureau. Save the numbers on your online orders so you can compare them to the email. If they don't match, it's a scam.

Don't enter credit card information on a pop-up screen, which is a favorite tool of fraudsters to collect information. A legitimate merchant will ask you to create and log in to an account to communicate with you, not send you a link by email. Some merchants also give shoppers the option of using other ways of paying for online orders, such as third-party payment services, according to the National Retail Federation.

3. Trust but verify.
Use common sense and avoid deals that seem unrealistic. The National Retail Federation (NRF) has a useful paper on its Web site with tips for shopping safely on a budget this holiday season.

Shop at retailers you trust and check review sites such as Bizrate.com, the NRF recommends. The Better Business Bureau site also lets you search the merchant's name for reviews, and has a useful tip sheet for avoiding all sorts of holiday scams. One suggestion on that list: If you shop using a free bulletin-board site such as Craigslist, try to complete the transaction in person; bring a friend if you are worried about meeting a stranger alone.

If you think you've been scammed, file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a joint venture of the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center. It also has a useful explainer to avoid scams.

About Women & Co.:
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