By Cliff Ennico
"Over the weekend I was looking for a specific item which I could not find locally. I found a source on the Internet, but I'm a little nervous about doing business with these folks. It is a company that I have never heard of, I don't know where its "office" is, etc. How do I know it is a valid, safe place to give my credit card number to for a purchase and that I'll get timely delivery?"
Just because someone has put up a Website to sell merchandise doesn't mean they are a reliable vendor. Anyone with a few bucks and a basic knowledge of HTML can set up a website. To become a reliable merchant takes years of experience. The fact that this website isn't customer-friendly is one sign that the company doesn't really care about what its customers think about it.
Here are some of the things I look for on e-commerce websites.
Do they publish their address and telephone number?
While I realize many e-merchants do not want to give out their mailing address and telephone number for fear they will be swamped with "crank calls" that will overwhelm their customer service staff, I do not like websites that don’t tell you where they live in the physical world.
Without having to dig too deep, you should be able to figure out (1) where the company is located, (2) what state they are incorporated in, and (3) what their "snail mail" address is. If the street address ends in "# 123" or "Suite 123", check Google Earth to see if there is an actual building at that address. Many e-merchants use private mailboxes (such as those available from UPS Stores) as their mailing addresses; if this one does, it is probably a home based "Mom and Pop" business. That's not a bad thing, of course, but it means you may have to dig deeper to find out if they're reliable.
Do they encourage you to e-mail them with questions?
Go to the "Contact Us" page and see if you can send them an e-mail asking for more information about their company. If they don't have a "Contact Us" page, or if they fail to respond to your e-mail message within 24 hours, that's a big strike against them.
The website's "terms and conditions of use" (sometimes called a "user's agreement") should contain information about the company's returns and refunds policy in case you are not satisfied with their merchandise. If it's not there, or if it says "we do not accept returns or give refunds under any circumstances," that's a big strike against the company.
Do they have a shopping cart with SSL encryption?
You should never order merchandise from a website that does not have a "shopping cart" enabling you to select and pay for your purchases, or at least a link to their merchandise listings on a well established and reputable e-commerce website (such as Amazon, eBay or Yahoo!) from which you can buy the merchandise safely.
If the website does have a "shopping cart," check to make sure it features SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption when you type in your credit card information. If the shopping cart is SSL encrypted, your credit card and shipping information will be transmitted across the Internet in a "scrambled" form and not decoded until the website receives it.
What is their reputation online?
Do a Web search for the company name and see if it has been featured prominently in any blogs, discussion forums or other consumer-oriented websites. If the name doesn't show up, that's a good sign this company isn't well known in the marketplace.
Be sure also to search the phrases "[name of company] sucks" and "I hate [name of company]". If you see more than a handful of "hits" on these searches, look elsewhere for your stuff.
) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at
. COPYRIGHT 2010 CLIFFORD R. ENNICO. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM. Permission Granted for use on Dr.Laura.com.