Online Shopping

Shopping online can be fast and convenient, but it can also leave you open to scams unless you know how to protect yourself. Auction rip-offs, purchase scams, spam and phishing (an unsolicited email that tries to con users out of personal information) are all popular tricks used by scammers.

Unlike in-person shopping where you can get a feel for a store and its personnel, with online shopping there are less clues to help you figure out if the site is trustworthy. Here are some tips to help you shop more safely:

Know who you are dealing with

Reputable online merchants post plenty of information about themselves, including their location, phone number, fax number, and other details. You should also look for:

  • Links to legitimate reviews.
  • Membership in organizations that guarantee standards, such as industry associations or the Better Business Bureau.
  • Certificates or seals of quality.
  • Other purchase options (by phone, at store locations or through a catalogue, for example).

Know exactly what you are buying

The vendor should give enough information for you to really know what you are buying. This includes details such as the size, colour, weight and texture of the product.

Know what you are agreeing to

Every time you choose to buy something online you are entering into a contract. Any reputable vendor will give you the terms of this contract on its website. Read them and keep a copy for your reference. Insist on:

  • Information detailed and complete enough for you to understand the terms of sale.
  • A description of the company's privacy policy and security features.
  • An explanation of how the company handles complaints and returns.
  • A delivery date for your product(s).

Know what you are paying

Be aware of all charges before you pay for your goods and services online. Your total price should include tax and shipping and handling. Also remember:

  • You might have to pay for customs and border fees if you buy things from companies in other countries, so make sure you get an estimate of what those charges might be before you pay for your order. These fees can be expensive. For more information on fees, contact the Competition Bureau.
  • Don’t forget to account for the exchange rate. The charge on your credit card will probably be different from the final price because of the exchange rate.

Know what information you are giving to the vendor and why

Never deal with vendors that do not post a privacy policy. For many online vendors, your personal information is as important as your money. Make sure you know why vendors are asking for information, and how they intend to use it. Consider whether it is reasonable for the vendor to use your information in this way.

Canadian companies are subject to privacy laws. For more information, contact the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Know when to be concerned

It is also good to be aware of tricks that no reputable vendor would use. Seriously consider abandoning your order if the vendor does any of the following:

  • Asks for credit card information before allowing you to enter a site.
  • Tries to rush you into a decision.
  • Presents incredible savings—offers that sound too good to be true usually are.
  • Sends spam emails. Most good companies will ask if you want to be added to a mailing list at some point during your order, but spam emails are different. They can hide computer viruses so don’t reply to them and delete them.
  • Use "browser traps"—these include tricks like disabling your browser’s “back” button, opening new windows every time you try to close one, or other tactics that make it hard for you to get out of a site. Do not do business with vendors who use these techniques and never make a purchase to get out of the trap.
  • Does not provide the terms and conditions on its site, or provides terms and conditions that are so complicated and detailed that they’re impossible to understand.

Online Shopping by Children and Teens

Kids and teens may be tricked into buying items that are not as big, not as much fun as they looked online, or of poor quality because they don’t have as much experience as adult shoppers. Young people often do not understand the real or entire cost of some purchases. They may also give out personal information without realizing the consequences. Teach them to be aware of the risks and show them how to protect themselves when buying online.

Here are links to some websites that can help you and your family become Internet savvy:

Online Auctions

Online auctions can be risky. Here are some tips to avoid being scammed:

  • Know what you're buying and get a description of the item in writing so you have a concrete basis for a complaint in case the product does not meet your expectations when you receive it.
  • When you buy from a private individual, consumer protection laws may not protect you. Read the rules of the auction site: scrupulous sites will keep records of customer satisfaction and should also have dispute resolution mechanisms.
  • Look at other buyer reviews. Most good auction sites have a review system in place. If a seller doesn’t have a lot of good reviews or has a lot of bad ones, don’t buy from them.

Buying Internationally

Remember, buying from other countries can be riskier because laws and standards aren’t the same everywhere. This can make it harder to resolve issues if something goes wrong. Here are some things you can do before you buy:

  • Check the Canada Border Services Agency website to find out about what you can have shipped into the country.
  • When calculating the price, factor in shipping and handling costs, taxes, duty and converting to Canadian dollars.
  • Make sure that the product you buy is safe. To find out what the Canadian safety standards are for the item you plan to purchase, visit the Canadian Standards Association’s international website.

If you have a problem with a foreign online vendor, report the incident to This is a reporting service run by the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network on behalf of 36 consumer protection agencies around the world.

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