How to Research an Unknown Retailer
Can you contact them? Okay, you stumbled upon a store called Uncle Bob's Star Wars Figurines Shop while doing a Google search. What now? Look for the Uncle Bob's contact information, including its phone number and physical address. Once you have a phone number in hand, call it, to make sure you get a live person and not an automated machine (or worst, a disconnected number).
Read the fine print. Check the store's return policy before making your purchase. Some stores, such as Shoebuy.com, offer free returns/exchanges, including paying for return shipping. However, most stores aren't quite that nice. Some merchants may charge a restocking fee, while others won't take back opened or large items, such as a TV. (See our Tech Buyer's Guide to Return Policies.)
Research their reputation. If the website in question still causes suspicion, use the Internet to research them. The Better Business Bureau and ResellerRatings are two of the web's better sources of merchant reviews. It's best to use them in tandem, however. The BBB exists because of the dues paid by its members. The ratings on ResellerRatings are user-generated ... and subject to abuse.
At dealnews, we use these and other techniques every day to be sure that the stores we list are stores that we'd buy from too. For more safe shopping tips, see our feature on Safe Shopping: How to Shop Securely Online from last year.
Louis Ramirez is dealnews' Features editor.