SURFING SAFELY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You made it through Black Friday. Now comes Act II: Cyber Monday.

That's when everyone is back at work in front of their computer and shopping online. Many retailers will offer deals for this day only. And all sorts of sites have popped up to help nimble-fingered shoppers compare prices and take advantage of online coupons and promotions.

But as you rush online to snatch up deals, scammers will be lurking there, too, hoping to catch you off-guard and steal your information.

This year, consumers may be more at risk than usual, partly because so many are financially strapped that they will spend more time online surfing for deals, says Neal O'Farrell, a cybercrime expert with Intersections Inc., a provider of identity theft protection services. That increases the chance of clicking on the wrong link and landing on a fraudulent site.

So, how do you navigate Cyber Monday to get good savings and safely?

Do research ahead: : Lots of retailers will have sales for Cyber Monday. But are they a good deal? Before Monday, scout retailers' sites to find out the regular price of items you want, so you know whether Monday's sale is a bargain, says Mike Allen, founder of Shopping-Bargains.com.

While you're at it, sign up for your favorite retailers' e-mails, which will notify you in advance about sales or send you coupons available only to a limited number of customers, says Tod Marks, senior editor with Consumer Reports.

And check out comparison-pricing sites such as PriceGrabber.com, Shopping.com and PriceScan.com. They can help you find which retailers are offering the best price.

Check coupon sites: : If you know exactly what you want, go directly to the retailer's site.

But many sites, such as Retailmenot.com, RedPlum.com, Shopping-Bargains.com and CouponWinner.com, aggregate coupons and promotions so you can view deals from hundreds or thousands of merchants. Sometimes the sites offer exclusive deals with a retailer, says Jody Rohlena, senior editor of ShopSmart magazine.

"Always read the fine print" on coupons and promotions, says Andrea Woroch, a public relations specialist with CouponWinner.com and PromotionalCodes.com. Some retailers won't let you stack a coupon on top of a promotion, but others will, say, give you a discount on a price and throw in free shipping, she says.

Look for free shipping: : "There is no need to ever pay for shipping," Woroch says. "Thousands and thousands of retailers offer free shipping."

Often to get free shipping, you must make a minimum purchase from, say, $15 to more than $1,000, depending on the retailer, Allen says. Some merchants won't charge for shipping if the merchandise is sent to one of their stores for pickup, he says.

Find mailing deals at freeshipping.org.

If you're traveling for the holidays, have your gifts shipped directly to the recipients or to the place you will be staying. This way you can avoid packing them in a suitcase and getting hit by an airline baggage fee.

Check return policies:: It's possible a gift will arrive damaged or the recipient received the same reindeer sweater from someone else.

Before buying, review the return policy to make sure it's easy to exchange items or get a refund. Some retailers will allow merchandise to be returned within 60 days or more if it hasn't been worn or damaged, Rohlena says. Others pay the shipping for returns. And some retailers allow you to return online purchases at a nearby store.

Some retailers aren't so lenient. They put strict limits on what can be returned and when, or charge a 15 percent to 25 percent restocking fee, Rohlena says.

ShopSmart recently ranked the return policies of online retailers. Among the best: Ikea, Nike, Bed Bath & Beyond, Costco, Bloomingdale's, L.L. Bean, Lands' End, Nordstrom and Sam's Club.

Those with more Scrooge-like policies: Amazon.com, Boscov's, Finish Line, Office Depot, Overstock.com and Home Depot. Online retail giant Amazon, for instance, charges a 15 percent restocking fee for computers and fine jewelry, ShopSmart says.

Play it safe:: Security experts advise going directly to the retailer's Web site to avoid links that could send you to a thief's site. Look for signs that the site is secure, such as the "https" in the Web address or a padlock icon at the bottom right corner. Cybercrime expert O'Farrell warns that even these signs don't always guarantee security.

Before dealing with sites you have never used, check their record online with the Better Business Bureau, Rohlena says. "Or just Google a company and 'complaint.' That's another way to check them out," she says.

Retailers and shopping sites plan to use e-mail and social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, to alert customers about deals Monday. Beware of postings that appear to be from a friend or someone passing on information about a bargain, but in reality are hiding malicious software or a phishing scheme to steal your information, O'Farrell warns. Don't click on a link within the post, but separately verify that the information is legitimate.

"If given the option of convenience over security, consumers tend to select convenience," says Adam Levin, chairman of Identity Theft 911. "Convenience can be very expensive down the line."

So don't store your credit card number with a retailer, even though it takes time to re-enter your information whenever you shop. Don't use the same password for everything. And never use as a password your birth date, dog's name or other personal information anyone can easily uncover, Levin says.

Don't pay by debit card, which is a gateway to your bank account, Levin says. Use a credit card which has more consumer protections if a theft occurs.

Or set up a PayPal account, which you can use to buy items online without the retailer getting your bank or credit card information, says Kate Arcieri, RedPlum's editorial director.

Make sure your computer has up-to-date antivirus software. "If it's not updated, it's like being a member of a health club and not going," Levin says. "It feels good, sounds good, but doesn't work."

Check your credit card and bank accounts online daily during the holidays to spot any unauthorized activity, Levin says.

It all sounds scary. But O'Farrell says the vast majority of online schemes can be avoided if you just slow down and think before you click.

"We are too busy. We click on things we shouldn't click on," he says. "That's not a hard thing to change."

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