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How to spot a shady website

I have been owner of a small internet retail website for about 10 years. As an "internet insider" of sorts, I have developed a set of criteria for buying from unfamiliar websites. I do a lot of internet shopping for myself and my family. Mainly I buy from sites I'd heard of. But sometimes I need to get a product from a site I'd never heard of previously. This is how I determine whether I think they are legitimate:

1. Where are they located? Do they have an address and phone number posted on their website? It's important to look for this, to determine whether your merchandise is coming from the United States or from overseas. Look for an email address, too. I am leery of websites that only use a contact form that you submit; I like to see an actual email address -- one that uses their domain, not a free domain like Yahoo or Gmail. No location, phone number, or email address listed? Big read flag!!!

2. Does the website contain Google ads on it? Seriously, only very "low rent" websites will contain Google ads. Most legitimate online retailers avoid that like the plague. Why? Well, if you're an online retailer, you don't want people seeing the URL for another website while they're on yours! Google ads are just an easy way for webmasters to make extra money with clickthroughs. Any decent internet retail site will not resort to this tactic unless they are total clueless amateurs.

3. Look at the photos and read the product descriptions. Is the English bad or broken? Are the photos blurry or unclear? Do the photos actually show the real product that you will be buying?

4. How long have they been in business? Do they have a copyright at the bottom of their website? Is their time in business stated anywhere? If not, you can do a "whois" lookup to find out more about the domain, how long it has been around, and who owns it. Just go to any search engine (Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc) and type whois followed by the name of the website.

5. In general, how does the website look? A cheap looking website does not necessarily mean a bad company (sometimes these are small businesses which cannot afford a site designer). However, a cheap looking website combined with a few of the other things I'd mentioned is a red flag, IMO.

6. Is the shopping cart secure? Look for the "https" when you get to checkout. If there is no "https" (only "http") it may not be a good idea to buy from them, because your data will not be submitted in a secure manner.

7. If you are slightly leery and unsure, go to your favorite search engine (Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc) and search the company name and/or URL. See what other people are saying about them. Do not take the advice of some of these fake "scam alert" type websites (which are often scams, themselves). Read a variety of opinions from various sources. If you have security software installed on your browser, such as AVG, that could give you a decent indication of whether there has been trouble with that website, as well.

8. When in doubt, use PayPal. If the site offers a payment option through PayPal, use that instead of just entering your credit card. It is more secure.

9. Beware of some Amazon sellers. In the "old days," Amazon sold only merchandise which it carried in its warehouse. Now anybody can become an Amazon seller (much in the same way that anybody can become an eBay seller). When you buy from Amazon, do you really know WHO you are buying from? Is it being fulfilled by Amazon or by some unknown company? Notice that Amazon doesn't provide any contact details for these third-party sellers. There are many Amazon sellers out there selling knockoff counterfeit merchandise. Remember the old saying: if it looks too good to be true, it is! Amazon is trying hard to crack down on these counterfeiters, but it isn't easy.

10. Ditto for eBay sellers. Most sellers are legitimate, but beware of counterfeit merchandise.

11. Look for small print. There is a new breed of website in town that lures you in with an incredible bargain on shoes, jewelry, or perfume, for example. What you may not notice is that along with your bargain, you are buying a $30 to $50 per month membership to the site. Before you know it, they are charging your credit card monthly, and it can be almost impossible to get them to stop. Before you checkout of ANY website, look for the small print. Pause a moment before hitting that Submit button. It might just save you a lot of aggravation.

12. If you can't use PayPal, use a credit card, not a debit card. Credit cards have more security precautions and are generally more secure. And the type of credit card you use is important, too. Companies like American Express and Capital One have excellent customer service. They will dispute a charge for you without any hassles. If I need to buy from an unfamiliar website, I usually use my American Express.

That's all I can think of for the moment. If I think of any additional tips, I'll post them.

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13. Return Policy. Is the return policy clearly stated, as well as the place where you would send the return?

14. Privacy Policy. This is often required by many web hosts. If it's a Yahoo Store, it may have a very standard "boilerplate" privacy policy. Or, it may have a custom-written policy. Whatever the case, there should be one.

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Good point, Mai N. I have never sent payment to a personal email address except via eBay.

I was just answering a question here on the forum about a shoe website (Karros Quality Shoes) and saw that it didn't have a real shopping cart, and the transaction was done via personal PayPal account. Wow, that is a new one on me. I didn't think that anyone would be uneducated enough to buy something from a storefront website that doesn't have an actual shopping cart or direct link to PayPal as a merchant. The woman who asked the question was surely scammed, which is unfortunate.

Most legitimate businesses will be set up with PayPal through a real merchant account, not through a personal account which merely uses an email address.

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I want to make a comment about trust seals.

I use Norton (formerly Verisign) for my internet retail site. However, there is a glitch. My store is a Yahoo store, and the shopping cart is hosted by Yahoo under THEIR domain, not mine. When you sign up with Norton/Verisign, they will only let you put their seal on your store product pages (the ones with YOUR domain), but the seal won't work on the checkout pages because those are the Yahoo.net domain.

Obviously, Yahoo store owners are not happy about this, and we have been hoping that at some point Verisign would find a work-around. But so far, nothing has changed.

So, on my site, the Verisign/Norton seal works perfectly well on all of the pages EXCEPT for checkout, where it is merely a static graphic image. Not the best solution, but the only thing that can be done.

I tell you this to point out that not all static trust seals indicate a scam website. The seal SHOULD work somewhere on the site and should take you to the trust seal provider, not to the store's domain or any other domain.

I have debated time and time again whether I should take the static trust graphic off of our checkout pages because some people might think it is not real. I have considered other trust seals, but you have no idea how expensive those things can be (thousands and thousands of dollars per year). Verisign/Norton is very affordable, and that's why we went with them.

It is also debatable how much attention the general public actually pays to trust seals. Do they really understand them? Do they even care? These are the types of issues that internet store owners face: do we pay a lot of money annually for a trust seal that everyone ignores or doesn't understand? The trust seal business itself is a bit of a moneymaking scheme -- even the legitimate ones. When you own a website you need to do what you can to make people feel comfortable and confident -- but some of these trust seal companies really take advantage of small business owners.

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You might add this test. If you can obtain a telephone number for a seller, test it. Use your own educated judgement to size up seller and customer service. If customer service sends you in circles, beware.

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Yes, IF there is a telephone number it's a good idea to call them! And there should be a phone number, if they're selling you something! If nobody answers, leave a message. Any decent website will call you back within a day, or two days at the most if they have nobody manning the phones on the weekends.

In this 24/7 society, we expect someone to answer immediately. But keep in mind that some small businesses do not have professional call centers (it can get extremely expensive, usually costing upwards from $1 per minute!) In those cases, the people who work for the company answer the phone themselves only during regular business hours.

I have recently read a story about a perfectly reputable website (small business) that does not list a phone number anymore. They consider themselves an "internet only" store and do not want to take customer phone calls. Personally I think that isn't a good way to handle things, but who knows, maybe it works out OK for their business.

When you think about it, there actually are a number of internet companies that do not have customer-facing phone numbers. The most popular one that comes to mind is Amazon. There is also no way to contact Amazon's third-party sellers by phone. Makes you think....

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