Ask a Lawyer: How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off Online?

Consumer protection, Technology

With the holiday season now in full swing, it turns out this year’s Cyber Monday (the Monday following the Thanksgiving holiday weekend) was the busiest online shopping day in history, surpassing $1billion in sales. Great news for a sluggish economy, but with every online transaction there’s risk if you are not a responsible consumer.

We’ve asked Internet attorney Aaron Kelly, with The Kelly Law Firm in Scottsdale, Arizona, to answer a few questions about the best way to shop safely and what to do if you have a negative experience with an online retailer.

Avvo: As people shop online this holiday season, what are some best practices for keeping their identity and credit card information safe?

AK: Safe shopping always starts with being a smart shopper.  Research before buying anything.  I remember the old eBay slogan “Caveat Emperor” or “Buyer Beware”.  The same holds true today, as there is a certain level of personal responsibility that comes with online shopping.  If there is a deal that looks too good to be true, it probably is.

  • Make sure that all of your accounts online have strong passwords, meaning use both numbers and letters.
  • Be cautious whenever someone asks for your information, because a lot of email scams may look like they are coming from a trusted source. Make sure that you are only visiting trusted sites, and providing information to trusted sites.
  • Take a screen shot or print out whenever you are finished with the transaction and save it.  Sometimes emails get lost and if there is a dispute you want to have proof of the transaction.
  • Look to see if the site uses encryption, or a shopping cart system that uses encryption.  One way to determine whether it is a secured and encrypted connection is whether the url for the shopping cart has https:// .  The “S” means that it is secure and encrypted.  However, you should still do your homework and make sure that the URL is not a fake or a cloak for a different URL.

Avvo: How much responsibility falls on the websites/online sellers to provide a good and safe service for consumers?

AK: This is a complicated question. There are some retailers out there who have excellent reputations for providing secure and safe services while there are others who do not.  It is important for an online retailer to have secure encryption in place, and a customer support hotline where people can call with questions.  The website should have carefully crafted Terms of Service and privacy policies on its website, and be upfront and transparent with the information it collects, how it uses it, and what measures it takes in the event there is a breach of security.

In a way, internet retailers are held to a higher standard since often they may not have an actual brick and mortar store.  They must substantiate information on their website, as well as and make that information available to end users who request it. Disclaimers are not enough to counteract a false or misleading claim, and if refunds are promised, they must be delivered in the time frame called for in the site’s terms and conditions or purchase order agreement.

Avvo: Are there certain signs that should indicate to people that this website is “safe” or “not safe”?

AK: One of the first things I check for when I visit a website is whether they have a Terms of Service page and privacy policy.  I cannot overstate the importance of both of these documents.  What is surprising, however, is that rarely do people even read these; nor do all online retailers even have them.  Most of us merely see it is an obstacle and click “I Agree” in order to get to the next screen.  And for those that do, some Terms of Service are merely copied and pasted from another website.  Not only is that copyright infringement, but it’s putting the online retailer in a lot of trouble since they don’t know what the Terms even say.

To me, having those two pages on your website mean you care about your customers. A Terms of Service is a disclaimer and contract with the end users or visitors of the website and Courts will uphold them.

As far privacy policies go, these are even more important sometimes than Terms of Service as they govern what information the retailer collects and how it can be shared.  In today’s world, information has become the new currency and when you fill out a form on the internet often times the information you provide is worth tens, if not thousands, of times more than whatever you just bought.  For example, someone that buys a book on “do it yourself credit repair” might have their information sold to someone who handles bankruptcy or debt solutions.  Not everyone is aware of this, but at the very least this should be available in the retailer’s privacy policy. So it is vitally important that, if you value your privacy, you read the retailer’s privacy policy carefully.

Other signs:

  • I look whether or not the retailer has an actual physical address and phone number.  It is important that you know who you can contact in case of a problem.  It is also good to research that phone number to see if it is a fake phone number or is going directly to a cell phone. This is usually a sign of a scam.
  • See if the website is a member in certain programs such as TRUSTe ( or the Better Business Bureau (
  • Look for broken links, poor spelling and grammar.  These can be telltale signs that the site is merely there to take your money and run.

Avvo: If someone has been overcharged, had their credit card information stolen or maybe never even received what they ordered – what steps should they take to take care of the problem?

AK: Contact the retailer first.  It’s important to try and  resolve it with them the best you can without simply disputing it with your credit card company.  Make sure you document all correspondence you have with them.  Be calm and courteous.  Remember, often times the person on the other end of the line is just doing their job and following the company’s procedures. Whenever you are done, document what was discussed.  I sometimes even tell people to confirm whatever was discussed in writing with the other party (meaning, send an email saying “As we discussed on the phone you said XYZ”).

If you are not getting anywhere, then it would be wise to dispute it with your credit card company.  At this point, you should have documented the steps you took in resolving the dispute on your own and why exactly you are disputing the transaction.

Avvo: At what point should someone seek legal help?

AK: The lawyer should not be your go-to person for resolving these problems.  In fact, it should be a last resort.

Often times people like to use legal threats in order to resolve a situation when it fact it only makes matters worse.  As lawyers, we tend to complicate things a bit, and if cooler heads can prevail it is much preferred.  However, when someone starts threatening physical violence, threatening legal action, or has crossed the line it would make sense to consult with an attorney.

Avvo: After reading about the ordeal Clarabelle Rodriguez experienced with – what could or should she have done differently? Does she have a case against the website?

AK: Based on what we know there are definitely some elements of harassment, online stalking, or possibly invasion of privacy.  There also may be possible suit for deceptive trade practices, fraud, identity theft, etc.  The FTC may even be interested in examining the owner’s business practices and claims. However, this depends entirely on the individual facts so I can’t really comment one way or another on whether she has a viable claim.

Is it a case I would pursue?  Probably.  Much if it hinges on what has in their Terms of Service or privacy policy. There could be a number of breach of contract arguments someone could make.

It is unfortunate what happened to Ms. Rodriguez, and even worse that the owner of the site found it amusing that he was making his sales off negative reputation.  Remember that old saying, even bad press is good press?  Well, that holds true especially with Google as the more a site is discussed the further up in the search engine ranks it will move.  Unbeknownst to some, there is an entire industry that feeds off of negative rankings and reputation, but I will not cover that here.

Avvo: Overall, with the growth of online shopping, do you think this is happening more and more?

AK: This situation, and actually much worse, happens every day.

Online sales increase every year, and along with that comes several inherent problems. Specifically, how to best hold retailers accountable for their actions while educating consumers on their rights. Many times it is because of a fly-by-night company.  It’s scary to think that, unlike a brick and mortar store, someone can easily put up a website that looks like a trusted retailer site and take your money, or even thousands of other people’s money, and then close down the business.  Thus, it is vitally important to use caution when buying online.

Remember, although there are a lot of good deals online, if the deal sounds too good to be true it probably is.

You may or may not have heard about an incident last year involving “Acai Berry”.  The FTC went after several affiliate marketers who had been selling Acai Berry products online.  While several of the claims had to do with false advertising, one of the biggest gripes that people had was that there were no ways to contact the retailers who had been selling the product.  People who had apparently purchased the product under the guise of it being “free” were billing for several months without realizing it.  Once they realized it and attempted to go to the website that they had purchased the product from, it was either no longer there or had no contact information whatsoever.

Do you have questions or concerns about online shopping? What steps do you take to stay safe?