Make the Most of Shopping Online

While many people still find holiday shopping no walk in the park, those same people would likely admit that shopping for loved ones around the holidays has become much easier over the last decade. Much of that newfound convenience is a result of the ever-evolving Internet.

Once used primarily for e-mail and information gathering, the Internet has grown in leaps and bounds during the 21st century. It's now just as easy, if not much easier, to shop for loved ones online, where shoppers can visit their favorite stores and make purchases without the hassle of haggling for parking spaces or dealing with heavy holiday traffic.

But just because online shopping is convenient doesn't mean there aren't a few tricks of the trade shoppers should know to make sure everything goes smoothly and safely.

Only use secure websites. The easiest way to determine if a website is secure is to look at the URL. Instead of the "http://" of standard websites, a secure site will read "https://". That "s" signifies that the site is secure. However, many times the "s" won't appear until it's time to check out. This shouldn't concern shoppers, as sites won't ask for personal information until checkout anyway.

Another, and even easier, way to determine if a website is secure is to look for the closed padlock icon at the bottom of the screen. Such a padlock is there when checking e-mail on a secure e-mail server like Gmail or Yahoo! mail, and it should also appear on the websites of online retailers. If there is no "s" or no padlock (some websites use a broken key instead), the site should be avoided.

Learn how to determine which retailers are trustworthy. Many shoppers are skeptical of spending lots of money with retailers they haven't previously done business with, even when they have met the retailer or visited the store in person. Not surprisingly, trust remains an issue and might even be a bigger issue when shopping online, where retailers are faceless and can be more difficult to contact.

When looking for a trustworthy online retailer, look for certain indicators that can put any concerns at ease. Reliable online retailers will advertise their physical business address and a telephone number where they can be contacted (preferably a 24-hour number).

Another indicator is the company's return policy. Online shopping isn't as cut and dry as shopping in-store, where clothing can be tried on and products examined prior to purchase. A trustworthy online retailer will recognize this disparity and offer a lenient return policy wherein shoppers can return items that are not what they appeared to be on a shopper's computer.

A trustworthy online retailer will also have an easily accessible privacy and security policy. This should indicate if the retailer intends to share its users' information (and which information is shared) with a third party and if the retailer mandates that any third party cannot market to users. This is a great way to reduce the receipt of unsolicited e-mails, also known as "spam."

Shop with credit cards and only credit cards. While it's easy to go overboard with credit cards when shopping for the holidays, online shopping should always be done with credit cards instead of debit cards or personal checks. Users are always protected from fraud when using a credit card thanks to the Fair Credit Billing Act. Charges can always be disputed and payments withheld while the investigation is ongoing.

Shoppers are vulnerable to bank fraud and even identity theft when using a debit card or sending a personal check. Even cashier's checks and money orders are less shopper-friendly than credit cards because such methods of payment leave little room for recourse should the purchase encounter any problems down the road.