By Maria Jose Subiria
The holiday shopping season is here, and many eager consumers are keeping a look out for the best bargains, whether they're in a store, or online.
But officials with the Better Business Bureau are warning shoppers not to throw caution to the wind, but to do some basic research on the stores where they plan to spend their money, and -- in particular -- make sure the online companies they are interested in are legitimate.
Such research would also included learning a store's layaway and return policies.
"At least from the predictions I am seeing, it is going to be a soft year for retailers," said Fred Elsberry, Jr., president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau that serves metro Atlanta, Athens and Northeast Georgia. "We'll probably see a lot of sales earlier."
According to the bureau, shoppers, who are interested in buying electronic items over the Internet, should beware of deals that are "too good to be true," because scammers are expected to be on the increase this holiday season.
"Despite the economy, consumer electronics are still expected to be on many holiday shopping lists," said Elsberry. "Everyone will be looking for the best deals ... and scammers know that they can take advantage of that by using low prices to lure in victims."
When shopping for electronics online, the bureau recommends that consumers to look out for prices that are lower than those of trusted and well-known competitors. Also, if there are grammatical errors on the web site, think twice before purchasing something, because some bogus web sites are created by scammers overseas, who don't always master proper English.
In addition, if a web site only accepts wire transfers, by using companies such as Western Union or MoneyGram, consumers should be wary, because most scammers advise victims to use this form of payment, officials said. Money cannot be tracked or retrieved as easily using this payment method, they said.
According to the Better Business Bureau, fraudulent web sites may use security seals, from certified organizations, such as VeriSign, IQNet, or TRUSTe. They may also falsely claim that their web site is accredited by the Better Business Bureau.
Usually, buyers can check if a seal is legitimate by clicking it, which should link them to a confirmation web page on the certified organization's web site, officials said. Scammers may get crafty, and link consumers to a fake confirmation web site, so purchasers need to make sure the web address is the legitimate web address of the certified organization.
"That would be the safest way to do it," said Elsberry. "We really just have to be extra careful who we are doing business with."
If shoppers are not comfortable entering their credit card numbers online, they should call the company, or fax it, officials said. "Be sure the web site you go to has a phone contact, and [physical] address," said Elsberry.
If a web site asks for a password, buyers should not use passwords they use in other accounts, officials said, in case scammers attempt to retrieve personal information. Consumers should also be careful when providing their Social Security numbers, or bank accounts. "It is not, probably, the best year to venture out into the cyber world, and do business with folks you don't have experience with," Elsberry advised.
An option that may be even more popular this year, because of the economy, is layaway, officials said. "It [layaway] is a sign of our rough economic times, that consumers are turning to layaway to purchase the basics, rather than just luxury items," Elsberry said. "For many families this holiday season, it's not just gifts and decorations that will be purchased on layaway, but also the basic items needed to get by in everyday life."
When using layaway, Elsberry said, consumers should know the length of their pay period, payment due dates, the amount of the down payment, storage fees and service fees. In addition, they should be aware of late payment fees, and if a refund, or store credit is available if they no longer wish to purchase an item.
"Make sure you have a checklist of questions before you put items on layaway," Elsberry said.
Shoppers should also be cautious when returning items. In the state of Georgia, officials said, companies are allowed to establish their own return policies, so it is the individual's responsibility to learn those policies. Elsberry said it is important that buyers know their rights when it comes to refunds and exchanges.