Over the last six weeks, you’ve bought something online that in a different time, you would have bought in store. Online shopping is spiking, even as Amazon is prioritizing essential health products over other types of deliveries.

A great many ecommerce sites are legitimate and safe, but there are pitfalls. Bottom line: stick to the sites you know. New online merchants are springing up all the time, and many of them may be perfectly legitimate. But if you’re at all unsure and can’t afford a costly mistake, this may not be the time to experiment.

If you do decide to gamble on a site you’re not sure about, there are a few things you can do to mitigate your risk.

  • Look for a secure website. If a domain is properly secured, it’ll have a lock icon near the address bar on your browser, and an address that begins with “https”. If a website isn’t secure, a hacker can access any information you enter with relative ease.
  • Look for a good track record. Ask friends and family about sites they’ve used. Look for detailed reviews and don’t put too much trust in testimonials appearing on the websites themselves: these are all too often fake.
  • Read the terms and conditions carefully and ensure you understand them. Delivery times for many websites are longer than usual right now and sites have varying policies for returns and refunds. The good sites state those policies clearly. If you can’t find them, or they’re not easy to understand, steer clear.
  • Be wary of online merchants advertising on social media and other sites. Often these ads will advertise with an unrealistically low price for a product, luring in a naïve buyer. Other red flags include celebrity endorsements. Sometimes a product will be delivered, but it’s not what was represented on the site. Other times, the whole site is a sham, set up with the exclusive intent of gathering credit card information.
  • Use a prepaid credit card. Using a credit or debit card attached to your own accounts can compromise those accounts if you enter the information in the wrong place online. If you use a prepaid credit card, you may still put the purchase value at risk, but you isolate that transaction from the rest of your money.
  • Watch out for free trial offer traps. BBB’s across North America have received nearly 60,000 complaints about these offers over the past three years alone. The hallmark of these scams is an initial shipment as a “free trial.” All you need to pay with your credit card is shipping and handling. However, you may miss the fine print where you’re signing up for monthly shipments, billed to your credit card. These charges are very difficult to stop in many cases.

Many of the products available online care also on local retailers’ shelves. Consider shopping local. It’s the safest bet of all and it keeps money in our communities. Those retailers may be taking orders online as well, or over the phone, and they need our support.

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