Online Holiday Shopping Advice

If you feared the post-Thanksgiving Day sales at the mall on "Black Friday," or didn't find what you were looking for, then your big shopping day might be "Cyber Monday." The Monday after Thanksgiving is when people return to work and use those corporate high-speed connections to buy, buy, buy!

If you are going to be one of the 51.7 million people who will shop online this holiday season, "Good Morning America" technology correspondent Becky Worley offers these tips to get the best deals and make safe purchases on the Internet.

Shopping Search Engines

On Froogle.com and shopzilla.com (formerly bizrate.com), you can type in a product type or brand and the shopping engine spits out results from tens of thousands of online stores.

Two caveats about shopping search engines: One, they make no guarantees about the reputation of the stores listed through their sites. Two, the stores are not endorsed or vetted in any way by the search engines.

Make sure the engine you are using pulls data from a wide variety of stores and vendors. Some shopping engines only return results from stores and companies who pay to be listed. If their vendor list is limited, the consumer doesn't get to see the range of prices and selection available on the Internet. You can tell a shopping engine has a limited number of vendors if the results continually come back with the same seven or eight online stores.

Smaller Online Stores

Do your homework whenever you aren't using a large, reputable retailer.

Look for a real street address and a phone number on the site. Call the number and use your intuition to judge if it's a reputable store. If someone answers the phone by saying "Hello" instead of "Mike's Internet Superstore," or if the phone rings and rings, it's probably not a good idea to buy from that site.

Check sites like epinions.com to see if other people have complained about the store.

Return Policies

Read the return policy. You can usually find it on the bottom of the site's main page or is on the "about" page.

Know the return timelines, restrictions, potential fees and crediting options such as money back or a credit toward a future purchase. Some larger retailers will allow you to return the items to their brick-and-mortar store.

Credit Cards

According to the National Consumer's League, credit cards are the safest way to shop online -- you are liable for $50 maximum if you are billed a fraudulent charge. If you are dissatisfied with the Web site's service or the products delivered, using a credit card gives you some recourse. Since the credit card funds are not immediately withdrawn from your account, you can dispute a charge using all the muscle of Visa, Amex or MasterCard.

E-mail Addresses

Retailers harvest your e-mail addresses and put them in a house file, they use those names to send you advertisements in the future and some companies sell your e-mail address to other advertisers. So use an e-mail address that's only for online purchases.

Don't have a spare e-mail address? You can create a new e-mail address from free e-mail services such as Hotmail and Yahoo!

Shipping

Since small eBay stores and individual sellers are swamped at this time of year, you should give them extra time to ship your gifts. Don't wait till the last minute if you are buying a gift through an online auction.

For your gift to arrive by Christmas, know the shipping deadlines: Dec. 14 is the deadline to ship Parcel Post, Dec. 19 for First-Class Mail, Dec. 21 for Priority Mail and Dec. 23 for Express Mail. This may vary by location, so check with your local post office.

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