Online buying and selling has become an important part of many people's lives. Students and parents rely on the internet to acquire and sell textbooks at affordable prices, virtual stores allow people to shop from the comfort of their homes without the pressure of a salesperson, and online marketplaces provide a new and more convenient venue for the exchange of virtually all types of goods and services.

Both businesses and customers have embraced online sales as a cheaper and more convenient way to shop, but just like anything associated with the internet, there are benefits and dangers associated with shopping online. Read on to learn how to protect yourself while you use this handy resource. (To read more on online buying, see Keep Your Financial Data Safe Online and 10 Things To Consider Before Selecting An Online Broker.)

Mechanics: How Does Online Buying Work?
Shopping online is just like heading out to the store. You can buy all the same things from your home computer and can sometimes even get access to better sales.

Finding a Product
When you shop online, you have to start by searching for a product. This can be done by visiting a store's website or, if you are not aware of any store that has the particular item you are looking for or you'd like to compare prices between stores, you can always search for the items with a search engine and compare the results.

On major retail websites, companies and merchants will have pictures, descriptions and prices of the goods that they have for sale. If a smaller company does not have the means to create a website, some sites like Amazon and Yahoo! make it possible for small businesses and individuals to display products or build their own online stores for a monthly and transaction fee.

Other websites like eBay and Bidz provide an auction format, in which sellers can display items for a minimum price and buyers can bid on these items until the listing ends or the seller chooses to award it to a buyer. Most stores also have placed virtual customer service centers on their websites, so you can either call, email or chat with a live customer service representative if you have questions.

Buying and Receiving the Product
After finding and selecting your desired product, the webpage usually has a "checkout" option. When you check out, you are often given a list of shipping and payment options. Shipping options include standard, expedited and overnight shipping. Depending on the shipping company being used and your location, standard shipping usually takes seven to 21 business days and expedited shipping can take anywhere from two to six business days.

When it comes to paying for your purchase(s), there are also different options:

  • E-Check: This payment option is just like paying directly from your bank account. If you choose to pay by electronic check, you are required to enter your routing and account numbers. Once this is done, the amount is taken directly from your bank account.
  • Credit Card: When you pay by credit card, instead of swiping your card like you would at a brick-and-mortar store, you type the required credit card information into provided fields. Required information includes your credit card number, expiration date, type of card (Visa, MasterCard, etc) and verification/security number, which is usually the last three digits on the back of the card, right above the signature.
  • Payment Vendors: Payment vendors or payment processing companies, such as PayPal, are ecommerce businesses that provide payment exchange services. They allow people to safely transfer money to one another without sharing financial information. Before you make purchase through a payment vendor, you'll need to set up an account first to verify your credit card and/or financial institution information.

Advantages of Online Trading
There are a lot of benefits to be gained from buying and selling online. These include:

  • Convenience: It is very convenient to be able to do all your shopping from one spot - your couch!
  • Cost Savings: With ever-increasing gas prices, shopping online saves you the cost of driving to and between stores as well parking fees. You will also save time by avoiding standing in line, particularly around the holidays, when stores are very busy.
  • Variety: The internet provides sellers with unlimited shelf space, so they are more likely to offer a wider variety of products than they would in brick-and-mortar stores.
  • No Pressure: In a virtual or online store, there is no salesperson hovering around and pressuring you to purchase an item.
  • Easy Comparison: Shopping online eliminates the need to wander from store to store trying to compare prices.

Disadvantages of Online Trading
There are also disadvantages to buying and selling online. These include:

  • Increased Risk of Identity Theft: When paying for your goods online, it can be very easy for someone to intercept sensitive information such as a credit card number, address, phone number or account number. (To read more about online scams, see Identity Theft: How To Avoid It and our Online Investment Scams Tutorial.)
  • Vendor Fraud: If the vendor/seller is fraudulent, he or she might accept your payment and either refuse to send you your item, or send you the wrong or a defective product. Trying to rectify an incorrect order with a vendor through the internet can be a hassle.

Protecting Yourself While Shopping Online
Overall, the advantages to shopping online outweigh the disadvantages. That said, it is important to note that while they might be smaller in number, the disadvantages can be a major hardship.

While shopping online, it is very important to protect yourself and your information. Here are some tips that can help you take care of yourself:

  • Invest in Technology: It is a great idea to install antivirus and anti-phishing programs on your computer. An antivirus program will protect your computer from viruses and an anti-phishing program will attempt to protect you from websites that are designed look like legitimate sites, but actually collect your personal information for illegal activities.
  • Be Careful: Vendors do not have the right to ask for certain information. If a website requests your Social Security number, it is probably a scam. You will need to research the company requesting the information or exit that site as quickly as possible.
  • Research: If you are searching for an item using search engines and you encounter a store or a website you have not heard about, make sure you check the bottom of the pages for an SSL logo. SSL is a standard security technology for establishing an encrypted link between a web server and a browser. To be able to create an SSL connection a web server requires an SSL certificate.
  • Shipping Check: Always read shipping policies posted on the seller's website or beneath the product listing. Some sellers allow you to return an item within a specific period of time, while other vendors never accept returns.

Buying and selling online can be very convenient and rewarding but you always have to protect yourself. If a deal looks too good to be true, it usually is. If you don't feel 100% secure on a particular site, leave it and find something else. Also make sure that your computer is well protected before you begin any transaction that involves sensitive information. There are a lot of scams on the internet that can negatively affect your credit score and cost you money, so be proactive in your research to get the most out of shopping online. (For more of those scams, see Credit Scams To Watch Out For.)

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