It's just about that time of year when many consumers make a list, check it twice and then head straight for the Internet to avoid the frenzy of holiday shoppers in the stores. Bah! Humbug to endlessly cruising parking lots, battling sharp elbows and long lines, and showing up at the crack of dawn only to discover the product sold out 10 minutes ago.
Those of us trying to avoid such yuletide migraines will help fuel the $27 billion in online sales expected this holiday season, according to Massachusetts-based Forrester Research - a 23 percent increase over last year.
Then there are those like 34-year-old Sascha Ayala, who dislikes all the holiday hubbub but enjoys shopping in cyberspace even less.
"I'm not very trusting," says Ayala, a Belcamp bid manager and father of three. "I shop online maybe twice a year and only for stuff that's hard to find in the stores. I don't buy anything that's more than $100 and after I buy it, I get confirmation for my purchase and then I'll call customer service to make sure the sale went through."
With fears of identity theft and financial data breaches, Ayala says, "I don't like putting my credit card or bank card information out there and possibly having it used for something that wasn't its original purpose. It's just a quirk I have."
Apparently, it's a trait shared by more than 35 percent of Internet users, according to a study in March by eMarketer.com. Those who don't shop online said "concerns over the security and privacy of personal information keep many of them from becoming online consumers."
In fact, nearly 16 percent of online shoppers do not buy online. They research purchases, according to the study, but do not complete the transaction.
"There are a certain number of folks who are worried," says Steve Salter, vice president of BBBOnline. "But I have to say, things have really improved in the last few years with online shopping. ... With that said, there are also a number of things that shoppers can do to better protect themselves online."
So in celebration of next week's CyberMonday - when workers give Internet retailers the first big surge in sales on the Monday after Thanksgiving - we've enlisted Salter and the senior vice president of trust and safety at eBay Inc. to school any cybershopping novices out there.
"When people have to change the way they're used to doing things, there's naturally going to be some fear," says Rob Chestnut of eBay, who used to be a federal prosecutor in Northern Virginia. "It's well-documented that most identity theft occurs in the off-line world. The risks are everywhere, whether you're giving your credit card to a sales clerk or punching it into a computer Web site. The key to protecting yourself, however, is in how educated you are as a consumer."
You don't have to shop on the Web, but be aware that comparison shopping online is smart, many retailers will offer discounts to first-time shoppers and the majority of retailers will offer free shipping and discounts to early shoppers.
Follow these simple rules and you, too, can be a confident consumer on the Web:
Be wary of e-mail.
Just as you wouldn't give your personal information to anyone who calls you over the phone, you shouldn't give it out to anyone who e-mails you.
Look out for e-mail that's easily disguised as legitimate correspondence from a company, be it eBay, Amazon.com or a financial institution. Often, the e-mail will announce that you've just won something, there's a problem with your purchase, or a discrepancy in your account. Then, consumers will be asked to click on a link that takes you to a fake Web site that will request passwords, Social Security numbers, account numbers or other personal data.
"Most companies will never send you a security e-mail with a link in it," Chestnut says. "EBay and many major banks have an online message system that you can check to see if they sent you a legitimate e-mail."
Research the background of Web sites before buying.
The Better Business Bureau lists 2.8 million company reports on its Web site. You can find out how long a company has been in business, whether it has complaints filed against it and find a name, phone number and Web address to contact if you have a problem.
There are also dozens of consumer Web sites you can browse to find out about a particular company before doing business with it. If a Web site has no contact information, that might be a sign of how difficult it could be to change your order, ask any questions or return merchandise later.
Read the privacy notices.
Companies that have good business practices usually include a privacy notice on the Web site that spells out what and how information is collected, who the information is shared with and purchase policies the consumer must abide by.
Don't be afraid to call the customer service number to ask about how your information is stored and any other security question you may have.
Check for a secure site.