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Q: We plan to shop online for Christmas, what advice may BBB provide for a safe and productive experience?

A: The Monday following Black Friday, known as Cyber Monday, has become one of the top shopping days of the year. In 2018, consumers spent a record breaking $7.9 billion on online purchases on that day alone. Officials predict that 2019 will surpass $9 billion in online sales.

But online shopping – even on Cyber Monday – has risks. Be wary of misleading advertisements, lookalike websites, and untrustworthy sellers. The following tips will help you shop online this holiday season, so you can achieve maximum savings while keeping your personal information and hard-earned money secure.

1. Beware of false advertising and phony websites. If a company is selling the hottest item of the year at a price that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Watch out for false advertising and keep a close eye on the web address in your browser. Scammers love to create lookalike websites that, at first glance, appear to belong to a trusted retailer. Make sure websites use the correct spelling of a business name and have legitimate contact information and customer service numbers.

2. Shop with trustworthy sellers on secure sites only. Be wary of businesses you aren't familiar with. Check their BBB Business Profile on BBB.org, look at the rating, and read customer reviews. In addition, be sure any web page you purchase from is secure. Secure web addresses begin with HTTPS:// and not just HTTP://. Never put personal or credit card information in forms on non-secure web pages.

3. Keep your antivirus software up to date. Make sure you have antivirus software installed on your computer or mobile device, and that it is up to date. This will help you to avoid non-secure websites and pop-up phishing scams, and help keep your personal information safe.

4. Price check before you buy. Dozens of online retailers will claim they have the best price on an item, but their offers can be misleading. Do your homework by comparing prices. Remember that the best deal may not be the real deal.

5. Take advantage of rewards and loyalty programs. Check your credit card rewards program for special point offers that could add up on Cyber Monday and throughout the holidays. Make purchases using loyalty programs; many major retailers have them.

6. Use your credit card. It's always best to make online purchases with your credit card. If any shady charges turn up later, you will be able to contest them through your credit card company. Debit cards don't offer this same protection. Never make purchases with online sellers by giving them prepaid debit cards or wiring them money.

7. Understand return policies. Online store policies may change for Cyber Monday offers. Read the fine print before you buy. Understand the return or exchange policy for the specific item you would like to purchase. Be aware that stores may not allow returns for "final sale" or "closeout" items. Make sure to get gift receipts, so the recipient can return or exchange the item if necessary.

8. Watch out for phishing scams. Busy schedules and increased purchases make it easier to miss – and fall victim to – a phishing scam. Look out for unsolicited emails, texts, calls, or letters. These messages may claim you have a free gift waiting for you or that there is a problem with a delivery – all you need to do is click on a link or give up your personal information. Avoid phishing scams by ignoring suspicious correspondence and calls from unfamiliar phone numbers.

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"Giving Tuesday": In the spirit of the holidays, BBB encourages you to support the charities of choice.

From collection kettles and soup kitchens to toy drives and online charities, the spirit of the holidays means giving to favorite causes and assisting the less fortunate. The proof is in the fact that American charities receive one-third of their annual donations during the holiday season.

With the season of giving in mind, several charities started "Giving Tuesday," a movement to create an international day of charitable giving, which follows the busy shopping weekend of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday.

BBB Wise Giving Alliance, www.give.org , urges donors to research charities before giving to ensure that their generous contributions are going to trustworthy organizations. BBB WGA evaluations give donors insight into charity trustworthiness so that their hard-earned dollars go to charities that operate ethically.

BBB WGA is sharing the following tips to help donors give wisely and make the most of their generosity this holiday season and all year round:

1. Watch out for name similarities. When charities seek support for the same cause, their names are often similar. Before you give, be sure you have the exact name of the charity to avoid a case of mistaken identity.

2. Review the website carefully. A responsible charity will include the following facts on its website: its mission and programs, measurable goals, and concrete criteria that describe its achievements. You should also be able to find information on their finances. Keep in mind, the type of work a charity does will affect its costs.

3. Avoid on-the-spot donation decisions from unfamiliar organizations. The holidays bring a higher frequency of donation requests outside public locations. Don't succumb to pressure to make an immediate giving decision. Responsible organizations will welcome your gift tomorrow as much as they do today.

4. Be wary of emotional appeals. Marketers have been known to exploit the holidays to make emotional pleas to donors. Instead of making an impulse decision based on emotion, do some research first to verify that your selected charity operates ethically?

5. Avoid charities that don't disclose. Although participation is voluntary, charities that don't disclose any of the requested information to BBB WGA raise a critical red flag for donors. Visit Give.org to find out if your selected charity is nondisclosure.

6. Research tax status. Don't assume every organization claiming to do good is a tax-exempt charity. You can check an organization's tax status with the IRS Tax Exempt Organization Search, www.IRS.gov tool. Also, make sure your contribution is tax deductible.

Visit www.bbb.org for additional consumer and business tips.

Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga.

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