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8 Steps to Buying Electronics Online

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1011homespunweb.jpgBy Marshall Loeb, MarketWatch

RISMEDIA, Oct. 11, 2007-(MarketWatch)-If consumer electronics are on your gift-giving list this holiday season, you may want to skip a trip to the mall and go online instead. According to a poll by Consumer Reports, many online retailers offer a wider selection and better prices on products like TV sets, digital cameras and laptop computers than their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Here are eight steps for finding the best deals online without compromising your security:

1. Take advantage of so-called shopping bots. These are online databases that collect up-to-the-minute pricing information on a dizzying array of products and offer a quick and easy way to compare prices on a number of brands. Consumer Reports recommends starting your search at the following Web sites: Bizrate.com, Buy.com, DealTime, Froogle, MySimon, Shopping.com and Yahoo!.
2. Don’t get hung up on a particular brand. Prices on consumer electronics vary dramatically depending on brand, particularly when it comes to televisions. So if you can’t find the product you want at the right price, try settling for a lower-tier brand. Many lesser-known brands offer comparable quality at lower prices, says Consumer Reports.
3. Make sure to add on shipping charges. Don’t forget to factor them in when comparing prices or you may end up saving far less than you think.
4. Confirm the seller’s physical address. More and more identity thieves are setting up fraudulent virtual storefronts to dupe customers into handing over their financial information. To ensure that you can track down a retailer in the event of a problem, the Federal Trade Commission advises confirming the company’s physical address and phone number. Warning: If you get an e-mail or pop-up requesting your personal data, don’t input any information! This is a sure sign a vendor isn’t on the up and up, warns the FTC.
5. Read the company’s privacy policy. Make sure you know where your information is going. Before ordering anything from an online retailer, read the company’s privacy policy. It should outline exactly how the data you provide is used and with whom it may be shared, says the FTC Web site. If the terms aren’t clearly spelled out, consider ordering from another vendor.
6. Make purchases with a credit card. Credit cards are covered by the Fair Credit Billing Act, which gives you the right to dispute charges and even withhold payment in some instances. And if someone unscrupulous gets hold of your credit-card number and starts racking up charges, you’re typically liable for only $50.
7. Learn the return policy. Before you click the submit button on your order, make sure you understand the retailer’s return policy. Who is responsible for paying the shipping charges if you want to return the item? Are there any restocking fees?
8. Keep paper records of the transaction. The FTC recommends filing away a hard copy of all ordering information, including a product description, a printed transaction record and copies of any e-mails you receive related to the purchase.

Marshall Loeb, former editor of Fortune, Money, and the Columbia Journalism Review, writes for MarketWatch.

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