Can You Trust the Seller?

If you are considering buying from a store with a physical location open to customers, you can walk in, look the place over, and get an impression of whether the people who work there are trustworthy. But if you are considering doing business with an online seller for the first time, it's not so easy to tell whether the seller is safe to do business with.

How can I determine whether an online seller is trustworthy?

You can check out a seller by searching for it on the website of the Better Business Bureau, www.bbbonline.org, which rates certain companies on a scale from A+ to F and includes a tally of the types of complaints it has received against the company. If the business is a local one that also has a website, you can look it up on Yelp, www.yelp.com. There are also a number of other websites that collect consumer complaints. You should be aware that nearly all businesses of any size attract a certain number of complaints. The most reliable sort of recommendation is one that comes from a friend or acquaintance who has dealt with the company.

Watch out for email solicitations from unknown sellers.

We all receive advertisements and offers by email from unknown sellers-what is generally referred to as "spam." These solicitations are very likely to be fraudulent. You should not deal with a company that solicits your business in this way unless you can verify from some independent source that it is trustworthy. A good source for checking out claims that arrive in spam email is Snopes.com, www.snopes.com.

How can I reduce the amount of spam email I receive?

Unsolicited commercial email messages are required by law to include a means to unsubscribe from future messages. Most spam emails from legitimate companies will include an "Unsubscribe" link, and will remove you from their mailing list if you click on the link. Some unscrupulous spammers include such a link not to permit unsubscribing, but rather to determine whether your email address is an active one, and your click may result in additional spam. So be cautious about clicking "Unsubscribe" links. A legitimate "Unsubscribe" link may require you to enter your email address to confirm the account that you want to unsubscribe, but you should never provide any other personal information as part of the unsubscribe procedure.

Most commercial email providers do their best to filter out spam before it arrives in your inbox. If your provider is allowing more than a little bit of spam to get through, consider switching to a different provider.

Is it safe to purchase from a seller who is an individual person rather than a business?

If you make purchases on eBay.com, Etsy.com, craigslist, or other websites that enable person-to-person transactions, the seller will often be an individual rather than a business entity. Some of these sites offer feedback areas where customers discuss their experiences with a particular person offering goods, or assign a rating to the seller. If the seller has received more than a few negative ratings from previous customers, you should think twice before purchasing from the person.

A seller that has received a very favorable rating from existing customers is not necessarily safe to do business with. According to some estimates, about a third of all consumer reviews posted online are fake: they are not actually posted by satisfied customers, but by agents for the seller pretending to be customers.

Do I need to know where the seller is located?

When you shop at a physical store you know where to turn if you run into problems. But when you shop online, you may know nothing about the seller except its URL-the address of its website on the Internet. Look on the seller's website for a street address and phone number or use a search engine to gather additional information about the seller. Be wary if the seller's only contact information is a post office box.

Is it a bad idea to buy from a seller located outside the United States?

Since it's the World Wide Web, sellers might well be located in other countries. If so, you might not have the same legal rights, or be able to enforce your rights as easily, as when the seller is located in the United States. Some goods sold by an overseas seller may be "gray market" goods, which the manufacturer has not authorized for sale in the United States. This could void the manufacturer's warranty. The seller will not necessarily disclose that it is located outside the United States, so if you are not sure, make a point of inquiring.

Does it matter whether the seller is authorized by the manufacturer?

You may get better warranty service if you buy from an authorized seller. How do you know who is authorized? You can contact the manufacturer of the product you're interested in, or visit the manufacturer's web site to check if the operator of the site has been authorized to sell the manufacturer's product.

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