01/04/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Looking Out Online!

By all accounts, yes even from the pessimists, online shopping Thanksgiving weekend was a blockbuster, up 13% from last year. But none of that really matters if you don't get your order or you lose your identity in the process of ordering online. So, let's take a little time out for safety, security, and common sense.

First, the holidays are no time to experiment with unfamiliar etailers. Remember businesses spring up on the internet as quickly as the desert blooms after a rain and they just a quickly can go away. Stick with well-known and trusted sites.

Before you place an order, find out the company's refund and return policy. Also, watch out for add-on charges such as delivery or packaging. If ordering from overseas, customs duties should be spelled out. If things are unclear, use those free phone minutes and call the company directly. It's also a good idea to print out and save the "fine print" terms and conditions because a seller can change them at any time and you may need proof of what you agreed to at the time of sale.

Now, about that credit card. Make sure the site has an encryption facility to disguise card details during the transaction. That little padlock at the bottom of the browser should be your first clue. Your credit card company should protect you in case you have to make a claim against the seller for non-delivery or damaged goods. On the other hand, if you pay by debit card, you don't have the same guarantee.

For example, if a seller goes out of business and you didn't receive your merchandise, you can make a claim against your credit card issuer. Your liability is limited to $50 by federal law. With a debit card your liability is also limited to $50, but only if you report the loss within two business days. After that your liability increases to $500 and then after 60 days to the full amount of your account. Many people forget about these differences until they have a problem and find they are disputing things with their own bank. It's important to know what your bank's policy is and whether it is more generous than federal law requires.

As a buyer, you have the right by law to receive what you paid for. This is a simple, logical concept that frequently gets twisted when a merchant doesn't want to make good.
If the product that arrives is not "as described" on the site, email or call the seller as soon as possible to put them on notice. Keep a copy of your correspondence or written notes of your conversation. Understand that even though you may have signed a notice of acceptance at delivery, you still have a reasonable time to examine the merchandise and you have not signed away your right to reject.

Beware of buying at online auctions. You have few legal rights and auctioneers can refuse to accept responsibility for shoddy goods, meaning you could get stuck. Read the terms of the auction carefully and make sure you understand what, if any, protections the site will give you. Again, remember the larger, older site with a proven track record is your best bet.
If the terms and conditions of the auction seem too one-sided, they probably are and you should avoid trouble and shop elsewhere.

Lastly and most importantly for your peace of mind, and this has nothing to do with your safety and security except as it applies to your inter-personal relations, check and double-check the guaranteed delivery date--if you want your gift to arrive by December 25th, or mom's birthday, or your wedding anniversary. (For more consumer stories watch News 4 New York or log on to