(BPT) - Sometimes the best way to find that perfect holiday gift is to search and shop online; it's quick, easy and convenient. And more and more people are doing it: It's anticipated that sales for November and December will grow to $54.5 billion in 2012, a 16.8 percent increase over 2011, according to eMarketer.
As you venture into unknown online territory in your quest for that perfect gift, it's important to shop with a heightened sense of security. There are undoubtedly countless honest and hardworking sellers who peddle goods over the Internet, but there are also scammers looking to take advantage of unwitting victims.
Help protect yourself from scammers by following three simple rules:
1. Never use a money transfer service to pay for something online.
'Money transfer services are convenient and simple ways to send cash to people you personally know, but you're better off paying by credit card or using an escrow service when you're buying goods online from someone you don't know or you haven't met in-person,' says Shelley Bernhardt, director of consumer protection at Western Union.
Western Union is not an escrow service provider and does not guarantee the delivery or suitability of goods or services. Once you send a money transfer, it can be paid out to the receiver within a short time. After the money is paid, it's gone and the odds of getting it back if the gift you thought you purchased never finds your doorstep are slim.
If an individual seller or online retail website only accepts money transfers as payment, be wary and look elsewhere. And don't be fooled, even if the seller appears friendly and offers a reasonable explanation as to why he or she only accepts money transfers - fraudsters are well-trained in gaining your trust.
2. Never email any financial information.
It's a red flag if a seller asks you to email a credit card number or checking account number. And remember: Never give out your Social Security number when shopping online; retailers don't need this information to complete a transaction. If you're paying for something online, use a secure money exchange service like Paypal or use the secure payment portal on the seller's website.
3. Read product descriptions carefully, including the fine print, and determine exchange and return policies before you purchase.
If the seller or website you bought from doesn't have an exchange policy and the product you buy ends up being something different than what you expected, you're likely out of luck if you try to return it.
You can shop online safely and securely during the holidays or anytime of the year. But make sure you're a savvy shopper and protect yourself from scammers by approaching your purchases with the required amount of scrutiny.