While it’s true that consumers can buy almost anything online, some of those goods are no good or include unexpected costs.

The totals are not in yet, but consumers were on track to spend an estimated $9.4 billion on Cyber Monday alone, according to Adobe Analytics.

Recently, many shoppers have complained to the Nebraska and Iowa attorneys general about never receiving refunds after they discovered that their purchases cost more than advertised or were counterfeit.

“Take the time to compare prices between online and brick-and-mortar retailers,” said Meghan Stoppel, chief of the consumer protection division of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office. “While a price advertised online may initially appear lower, it may not include shipping and handling or restocking fees.”

Shoppers need to beware of unscrupulous people who are out to fool them or steal their money or personal information. Even if people stick to known online retailers such as Amazon and Walmart, they may encounter third-party vendors that fulfill orders and ship their own inventory.

Such third-party sellers are notorious for selling fakes, according to a 2018 study by the Government Accountability Office and a November article in the Washington Post. In fact, 20 of the 47 items that the GAO purchased from third-party sellers on five popular consumer websites were counterfeit.

“If you’ve never dealt with a particular retailer or website before, take a moment to do a little research,” Stoppel said. “With the Internet at our fingertips, it’s easier than ever to find customer reviews and information about how a company responds to customer complaints. If you can’t find this information, consider making your purchase elsewhere.”

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Here are some ways to avoid questionable vendors:

Check out the seller

On Amazon and Walmart.com, look below the “Add to Cart” button to see the name of the entity that ships and sells the product. Click on the vendor’s name to see consumer reviews, return policies, contact information and other information. Search the name on the Better Business Bureau’s website and through a search engine to spot possible red flags.

Read customer reviews with caution

Consumer Reports advises that reviews on product pages are aggregated regardless of who the seller is.

“If you look closely, you may see reviews that are wildly different for the same product, which could be due to quality control issues, durability issues, and different customer experiences — or this could signal a problem,” the magazine notes.

Review the return policy

Some third-party sellers will offer a return policy equivalent to Amazon or Walmart, but others do not. If you cannot find a third-party seller’s policy on returns and exchanges, including whether the retailer charges a restocking fee and who pays for return shipping, you may wish to purchase your item elsewhere. Also, beware if there’s no way to contact a seller. If a seller states “no returns” or “all sales are final,” carefully consider that before placing an order. A reputable retailer will almost always accept returns and will clearly disclose its terms and conditions.

If your purchase isn’t what you expected and you seek a refund, contact the third-party seller first. If you do not receive a response or if you are denied a refund, you can see if you are eligible for a refund from the website that facilitated the purchase. You may be eligible for Amazon’s A-to-Z Guarantee, for example, but other retailers may cover only the products they sell directly.

Fraudulent sites and phishing attacks

Online shoppers also should beware of fraudulent websites that fool consumers into entering personal data and credit card information. Many scammers create websites that closely mimic a genuine e-commerce site or send out phishing emails and text messages promising big discounts or free gift cards. A report by cybersecurity firm NormShield says the number of potential phishing domains for 50 major e-commerce sites has multiplied six times in the past four years to 6,000, and NormShield expects the number to exceed 9,000 by the end of 2019.

Ways to protect yourself

Examine emails and texts carefully: Scammers can easily copy company logos and other details. Look for clues like generic greetings and misspellings to spot scam messages. If the message asks you to click a button to update account information or provide other details, stop. It’s always better to visit a web retailer’s site through your web browser to contact them regarding your account or to make purchases.

Protect your computer and mobile phone by using security software: Set the software to update automatically to ensure that it’s equipped to deal with the newest security threats. Using multifactor authentication also can provide security by requiring two or more credentials to log on to an account.

Look for the secure “S”: Does a website have “https://” at the beginning of a web address (and perhaps a padlock symbol before it)? The “s” stands for “secure,” which means that the information passed between your computer and the website is encrypted. This makes it difficult for hackers to intercept sensitive information that they could use to charge your credit card or, even worse, steal your identity. Keep in mind, however, that even a “secure” website doesn’t absolutely guarantee security — it simply means your data safely travels from your device to the site. A secure site does not ensure that the site stores your data securely or is legitimate to begin with.

For more information, see the Federal Trade Commission’s tips at ftc.gov/tips-advice.

Use your credit card: A credit card is generally the safest way to pay online. It provides you more protections than a debit card, prepaid money card or gift card. Credit card issuers generally offer you the ability to dispute charges for unsatisfactory goods and services and protect you from unauthorized charges if a criminal steals your credit card information. If you think you may have provided card information to a website that is fraudulent, contact your card issuer as soon as possible. Avoid sites that ask for payment by cashier’s check or wire transfer. However you pay, be sure to keep copies of your purchase records and emails.

Review financial statements: Make sure you were charged the right amount, and also make sure there aren’t any unauthorized charges after your purchase. If you discover something wrong, contact your card issuer immediately.

Be wary of purchase discounts tied to “free trial” offers: These often are buying club solicitations, which may lead to automatic billing for an unwanted membership if you don’t cancel by a certain date or charges in the future for goods or services you didn’t authorize.

Know the total price: Make sure it includes all charges including shipping, handling, insurance and taxes. Be sure coupons and other discounts are properly applied.

Know what you are buying: Watch for words like “refurbished,” “reconditioned,” “close-out,” “discontinued” or “as is.”

Check the fine print: Companies may charge “restocking fees” for items you wish to return.

Keep a record of your purchases: Keep track of what you ordered including the date of payment, the price and the payment method. Save any information the seller provides to you, such as product description, delivery date, cancellation policy, warranties and confirmation numbers.

How to file a complaint

If you believe you have been scammed, contact your local law enforcement agency or the consumer protection division of the Iowa or Nebraska Attorney General’s Office. To file a complaint in Nebraska, call 800-727-6432; in Iowa, call 888-777-4590.

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kevin.cole@owh.com, 402-444-1272

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