BBB says six things to look for when buying online

The Better Business Bureau offers six tips for online shoppers.

No. 1 — Spot legitimate retailers and protect your personal information
From groceries and clothes to concerts and gifts, online shopping has become part of our daily lives. From conducting thorough research to using secure payment methods, online shopping can be a worry-free experience – if you know what to look for. In this guide, we’ll share how to look for signs of trust on websites, online marketplaces and social media platforms. If you’ve ever had doubts about submitting your payment information after that add-to-cart moment, keep these tips handy.

No. 2 — Look at these five safe ways to shop
We’ve shared safe online shopping recommendations before, but for quick and easy reference, here are five ways to ensure an online shopping outlet is legit:

  • Check for the sign of a Better Business.The BBB Seal is earned by brands that meet BBB’s Standards for Trustand is designed to give users instant assurance they’re dealing with a trusted brand. Look for the seal on the brand’s homepage or social media profile to see if they’re BBB Accredited. You can also double-check by searching for the brand on BBB.org.
  • Check the seller’s reviews and ratings.These exist on various platforms, but authentic, verified reviews can be accessed from a company’s BBB Profile as well. When reading reviews, look for trends – positive or negative – and take note of how the company responds.
  • Check for a secure website. Look for the “https://” URL structure in the company’s web address, as well as the padlock symbol in the address bar. These verify you’ve got a secure connection and encryption of your data. More information on website security.
  • Check for contact information. Whether it’s a street address, an email, or a phone number, contact information is crucial in giving you a way to contact a company.
  • Create strong passwords.For every online account you use – take the time to create a strong password. And when you’re logging into your accounts, enable two-factor authentication for added security.
  • No. 3 — Look for this when shopping directly from a brand’s website

Visiting a brand’s website directly to buy products or book services is one of the most tried-and-true ways to shop online. Not only does it give customers a direct pipeline to the brand’s customer service team and product information, but it can also instill confidence that shoppers are receiving genuine articles.

Run through the checklist above when you visit a new website and take note: Many BBB Accredited Businesses display the BBB Seal on their websites. If you click the seal, it should link directly to their BBB Profile on BBB.org (check the URL). Or, you can visit BBB.org and search for the name of the business to verify their BBB Accreditation.

On the homepage, find the company’s privacy policy, terms of service, return policy and contact details. If you have any lingering questions about the legitimacy of a brand, read the fine print of these policies to ensure you’re not getting duped.

When finalizing your purchase on a website, remember: Credit card companies can provide additional protection for questionable charges. Also, for those “remember credit card details for future purchases?” notifications – take care to vet the company’s security before doing so. You might also only save your financial information on secure payment sites like PayPal (a BBB Accredited Business).

Lastly, when navigating a website, here are some additional red flags to look out for:

  • Being redirected to another domain – keep checking that address bar.
  • Spelling errors, complicated navigation or broken images or links.
  • Pop-ups, questionable advertising.
  • Requests for personal data information like social security numbers or irrelevant financial details
  • Unusual payment methods like wire transfers, cryptocurrency or gift cards
  • No. 4 — Pay attention when shopping from an online marketplace

For many consumers, making an online purchase from marketplaces like Amazon, Etsy or Walmart is one of the most convenient ways to shop (Amazon and Etsy were BBB Accredited Businesses as of this writing in November 2023).

Because these platforms host multiple brands and independent sellers on their sites, they’re able to offer a vast array of products, competitive pricing and shipping costs. That said, there are still some key shopping habits to adopt to confirm you’re shopping from legitimate online retailers.

Look for the BBB Seal
Trusted brands will often display their BBB Seal in their product images or descriptions, so keep an eye out for it.

Pay attention to who the seller is
Online marketplaces have many sellers. You can buy from the brand directly or from a third-party seller on the platform.

The seller’s name should be listed on your checkout screen. In other words, if you’re shopping on Amazon, that doesn’t always mean you’re buying the product from Amazon; you’re buying from the listed seller for that product.

Check the reviews of the seller you’re buying from
These platforms have ratings and reviews from customers, so be sure to do your research and read what people are saying.

As an extra step, see if the brand is listed on BBB.org. Trusted brands are often listed in the BBB Directory, but many independent sellers are not. Be wary of sellers with low ratings and limited reviews, and read up on how to spot fake reviews.

Pay close attention to product descriptions
Sometimes, images or price points for products can look too good to be true. Before purchasing, carefully read product descriptions to learn about specifications, size, and features, and compare prices with similar items.

Use safe payment methods online
If you’re buying online, make sure it’s a secure marketplace. If a seller asks you to pay on an external webpage, perform a bank transfer or wire money, be cautious.

Understand the refund and return policies
Read the rules for refunds and returns on each platform to know your rights if there’s a problem with your purchase.

Take note of shipping times
Check the delivery timetable to see if it meets your expectations. It may be one of the last things you notice. For items shipping from overseas especially, shipping times can be multiple weeks or even months!

BBB Pro Tip
Buying the perfect gift starts with having a trustworthy buying experience.

See more information about buying gifts online here.

No. 5 — Check these points when shopping on social media platforms

Many popular social media platforms now offer shopping features due to the large number of online shoppers. Brands can promote products and interact with new customers, while customers can find, explore, and buy products without leaving the platform.

Products on social media are found through ads, influencers, or tagged stories/posts, unlike brand websites or online marketplaces. Discovery is the name of the game as brands try to catch the customer’s eye and make purchases instantly in their preferred social space.

As a customer, this kind of shopping also presents some risks, so here are some pointers to consider:
Visit the brand’s profile or bio. This may contain contact information, a link to the website, and, in some cases, a verified account signifier like a blue checkmark. BBB Accredited Businesses often use this space to highlight their BBB Seal as well.

Tune into reviews and comments. Social media reviews will be different from other sites with rating systems, but they still exist in the form of tags, comments on posts, or even “likes” or “thumbs up” symbols. Check the seller’s post history and look for these interactions to get a sense of the seller’s reputation. As always, BBB.org is your go-to option for trusted reviews and ratings.

Use direct messaging. One of the benefits of social media is the ability to message sellers directly through the platform. This allows more direct access for questions, feedback or concerns. Remember to be cautious about sharing personal details or financial information in these interactions.

Avoid redirects. When sellers set up a shop on social media, be cautious of navigating to an external link if you haven’t vetted the seller or their website first.

Use the social platform’s payment portal. Checkout procedures performed through the social media site can protect you with enhanced security. Be careful to verify where you are checking out.

Look out for account impersonators. Bad actors attempt to use fake social accounts to gain access to your financial information. To be sure you’re dealing with a trusted brand, you can always verify a brand’s social media link is authentic by clicking through from the brand’s website, their BBB profile, or by investigating the account history, activity and followers.

Make your passwords strong. As mentioned previously, a strong password and two-factor authentication will always safeguard your personal information when updated regularly.

No. 6 —Look at these five ways to promote trust online
The e-commerce landscape is still evolving fast. Many sellers have the means to start selling immediately, even without a business license. Because anyone can sell a product – from anywhere in the world – it’s up to consumers to keep a watchful eye, look for the tells, and encourage others to do the same.