CALPIRG’s Top Tips for Online Shopping

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CALPIRG Education Fund

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the busiest shopping time of year for consumers. Last year, consumers nationwide spent $59.1 billion during “Black Friday” weekend alone, including a record $1 billion spent in online sales on Black Friday.[1] This year, online sales on Thanksgiving are expected to increase by 21 percent, reaching $1.1 billion in 2013.[2] To help California consumers save money and stay safe online as they shop, California Public Interest Research Group Education Fund (CALPIRG Ed Fund) prepared the following holiday online shopping guide.

Save Money

  • Comparison shop: Consumers should take advantage of the abundance of online retailers competing for their business. Simple internet searches like “Compare price for X” may deliver cheaper products or discounted shipping charges.
  • Avoid Online Tracking: Some online retailers use dynamic pricing —providing different consumers with different prices for identical products. By using tracking cookies placed through Internet browsers, online retailers can learn about an individual consumer’s preferences, shopping habits and price sensitivities in order to “tailor” prices that meet their maximum price range. In other words, if you have gone to the same website several times to browse for a specific product, the company may try to charge you more because they believe you are more likely to pay more to purchase it. To avoid dynamic pricing, consumers should:        
  1. Avoid logging into a web site before getting a price quote.
  2. Clear browser cookies before and after shopping online.
  3. Check for other offers using different internet browsers and devices (PCs, tablets, smartphones, etc.).
  • Search for coupons and promotions: A simple web search using the retailer’s name with the words “promotion code” or “coupon” may result in savings. Some sites may include free or discounted shipping rates that can provide significant savings. Consumers can also try to log into a retailer’s website and leave items in the “shopping cart” for a few days, to see if the retailer offers any discounts or incentives to complete the order.

Avoid Scams and Unsafe Products

  • Read Reviews: When shopping online, consumers should look for trusted business that they have shopped at before, or that were recommended. When using a new retailer consumers can search for certification from BBBOnline (Better Business Bureau), Verisign, or TRUSTe.
  • Use Secure Sites and Web Connections: When entering sensitive information, such as a credit card, consumers should look for the HTTPS in beginning of the web-address bar (URL) or a small lock or key icon in the bottom right corner of the computer screen indicating that web page is secure. These mean that personal information is being transmitted over encrypted Internet lines, preventing interception along the way by criminals. Consumers should never shop online or transmit sensitive personal information (such as credit card numbers or bank account details) over unsecured or public WiFi internet.
  • Check for Recalls: Each year CALPIRG releases our toy safety report, Trouble in Toyland, highlighting dangerous toys and other child products found on the market. Consumers should be particularly cautious when buying gifts for young children, and check for product recalls and warnings prior to purchasing. lists the nearly 400 annual recalls initiated by all federal oversight agencies.
  • Ignore Emails Asking for Sensitive Information: During the holiday season there is an influx in malicious emails asking consumers to “update” their account information by following fake corporate links or by filing out virus-laden attachments. Consumers should remember that legitimate businesses never ask for sensitive or personal information via email. Consumers should never click on dubious links or download attachments if they are unsure about the sender. Instead, consumers should only contact merchants or services directly via official websites or customer-care phone lines.

Know Your Rights:

  • Pay with plastic: Credit cards provide consumers with the highest level of protection from fraud and theft. The federal Fair Credit Billing Act gives consumers shopping with their credit cards the right to dispute charges, withhold payments when contesting charges, and limits consumers’ liability to a maximum of $50. Debit cards, check cards or ATM cards provide consumers with much lower levels of consumer protection, and risk exposing bank account information to thieves.
  • Delivery Protections: If a retailer is unable to deliver a product in the promised time frame, they must provide consumers adequate notice and a revised delivery date. Consumers must then be allowed to choose between accepting the delayed delivery or canceling the order for a full refund.
  • Privacy Protections: Consumers are required to answer specific questions only to complete an order (such as shipping address) or verify payment (such as a credit card number). An online retailer may ask consumers to provide additional information — such as age and shopping interests, often marked with an asterisk (*) — that consumers are not obligated to answer. When shopping online, consumers can read over a retailer’s privacy setting to know what information is collected, used or shared with 3rd parties.
  • Return Policy Requirements: California law requires that retailers conspicuously inform consumers about their refund policies, especially if they do not provide a full cash or credit refund, or in-store exchange when returning an item within 7 days of purchase.[3] A return policy must also be disclosed before the purchase is completed. Therefore, printing or displaying the return policy on a receipt only after purchase is insufficient. Failure to properly inform consumers of a retailer’s return policy provides consumers with the option to return an item for a full refund within 30 days of purchase.


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CALPIRG, the California Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, is a non-profit, non-partisan public interest advocacy organization that takes on powerful interests on behalf of its members, working to win concrete results for our health and well-being.



[1] Black Friday Weekend Sales Estimated at $59.1B, Reuters, November 26, 2012.

[2] Thanksgiving — The New Black Friday? 2013 Set to be a Very Different Shopping Season, Tyler White, Digital Index, Retail & Travel, November 5, 2013.

[3] See California Civil Code section 1723, or online at:

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