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Skip the Mall and Shop Online

With gas prices steadily rising (oh, for the days when $2 per gallon seemed preposterous!), more of us are expected to ditch the mall in favor of our mouse this holiday season. Internet shopping enthusiasts, in addition to saving money on gas, love the fact that they can shop around the clock, cost-compare at several stores in a matter of seconds, determine whether an item is in stock without schlepping to the store, and avoid long lines.

Of course, online shopping is not without its detractors. Critics cite concerns with security issues (stolen credit card information and identity theft), high shipping costs, an increase in spam, and the fact that you can't see the item you're purchasing first-hand. These concerns are certainly legitimate, but don't let them stop you from buying online. Here are some strategies for minimizing the risks of shopping on the Net:

  • Set up a separate email account for online purchasing. The inbox of your daily email account won't be cluttered with retail offers and ads, and you can locate online coupons quickly when you need them.
  • Open a credit card with a small credit limit that's dedicated to online purchases. In case of Internet fraud, the potential loss will be capped at the modest sum, you won't be placing the contents of your bank account at risk (as you may with a check card from your main account), and you'll be able to track your online spending more handily than if you use multiple cards.
  • Check the seller's reputation with the Better Business Bureau.
  • Read the fine print. A site's privacy policy should be easily accessible from the main page. Ignoring the gobbledy-gook, you'll want to seek out the specifics about what information they gather, how they will use it, and if you have the option to opt yourself out.
  • Check out site security. Never give out your payment information (credit card number and billing address) via email. Make sure your credit card purchases are secure by ensuring the merchant's site uses SSL (secure sockets layering) technology, the industry standard for protecting transactions. While a merchant may simply indicate that it uses SSL, look to make sure that the URL (of the page on which you would enter in your card number) begins with "https," not just "http." (The extra "s" indicates that extra layer of security.) Still not sure? Call the company directly and have them detail their security measures.
  • Order online, pay by phone. Some retailers will allow you to order online but provide your credit card information by phone. It doesn't cost anything to ask!
  • Keep a record of your purchases. Print out your receipt record, any communications between you and the seller (including email confirmations), the description of the item, and any information you wish to keep regarding the seller's privacy policies. Should you have a complaint, you'll have the appropriate documentation at the ready.

Don't feel like it's truly Christmas until you experience mall madness? Wrap your PC in garish tinsel (of course, you really should have started in August), blast Christmas music, and get a few family members to bump into you without saying, "Excuse me." That should just about do it.

This article is adapted from theMotley Fool Green Light Money Answers archive, which features more than 100 articles on personal finance topics such as taxes, credit, and beginning investing, organized by subject and life stage. For access to this content -- plus the current newsletter, back issues, members-only discussion boards, and advisor blogs -- take a free 30-day trial today!  

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool'sRule Your Retirement newsletter and co-advisor of Motley Fool Green Light. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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