Don't Make These Five Online Shopping Mistakes

Online spending in the United States is expected to hit $370 billion by 2017, up from $262 billion in 2013, according to Forrester Research.

Consumers were most likely to shop for books, stationery or office supplies, followed by apparel and consumer electronics, based on an NPD Group study.

Online shopping can be a great convenience, but CPAs advise that there are steps you should take to ensure a safe and satisfying experience. With the holiday shopping season about to begin, the California Society of CPAs reveals five mistakes to avoid.

Mistake #1: Taking a Chance on Unknown Retailers

If you don’t buy from a well-known company, or one with which you’ve already done business, take some precautions to ensure you can be confident of a reliable transaction. Be sure the company lists an address and phone number. Try calling the customer service number to get answers to any questions that may concern you, such as how the company handles returns, refunds and consumer complaints.

You can also contact the Better Business Bureau or your state or local consumer affairs department to see if other purchasers have filed complaints.

Mistake #2: Following Unknown Email Links

Don’t click on links in unsolicited emails or social media sites, even if they purport to be from trustworthy retailers, because they may take you to sites that are trying to collect information for identity theft. Instead, type the organization’s website address into your browser’s address bar or find it through a search.

Never divulge personal information—including your credit card or bank account number or your Social Security number—in response to an advertisement or email.

Mistake #3: Shopping at Sites that Aren’t Secure

You can get a lot of clues about security simply by checking the company’s website address. For example, look for URLs that begin with https rather than http, because the added s indicates it is a secure website.

Check also for a padlock icon in the address bar to show the site uses encryption to ensure security, and click on the lock to learn the details. Review the retailer’s privacy policies, as well, to find out if they are designed to protect your credit card information or other confidential data.

Remember that Internet scammers often use a name that is very similar to a reputable brand, but they alter the spelling, or they simply misspell words in their website name or communications. If something looks suspicious, don’t buy from the site.

Mistake #4: Not Using a Credit Card

Charging the transaction allows you to dispute the purchase if it doesn’t arrive or doesn’t live up to expectations. At the same time, because identity theft—including the unauthorized use of credit card numbers—is growing, be sure to review your credit card statements regularly and contact the credit card issuer if you find anything that shouldn’t be on your bill.

Finally, the online retailer should provide you with a receipt for your purchase when it’s completed, with an order or confirmation number. Print the receipt and hold on to it until you receive the product or service so that you have proof of the purchase if you need it.

Mistake #5: Shopping Using a Public Wifi Connection

While it’s fun to settle in at a coffee house and do some shopping, it’s generally a bad idea. The connection you are using may not be secure, meaning that hackers may be able to gain access to the personal information you share with the retailer and use it to make unauthorized purchases.

Smart Tip: Consult Your CPA

CPAs can offer advice to help you make smart spending decisions and keep your finances on track. Turn to your local CPA with all your financial questions.

Copyright 2013 American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

The Money Management columns are a joint effort of the AICPA and the California Society of CPAs as part of the profession’s nationwide 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy program.