How Online Retailers Rip You Off

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Navigating the rocky shoals of Internet commerce has always been an exercise that tilted in retailer’s favor, but they are pulling out all the stops now that the economy is reeling again. And online businesses are using some shady moves to try and separate you from your money.

First, know that online shopping isn’t going anywhere—in fact, it’s growing larger (especially mobile shopping). ABI Research estimates that the market for online mobile shopping alone will reach $119 billion by 2015 on a global basis, up from just $396 million in 2008, ABI reports. Furthermore, the total online retail shopping market should rise to $279 billion by 2015, according to data from Forrester Research.

But despite those seemingly solid numbers, consumer sentiment is in the doldrums right now. Online retailers like banks and credit card companies are focused on cutting costs, and view your next online shopping transaction as an opportunity to do so.

Here are a four ways those retailers cut costs at your expense:

  1. Bundling. It might seem innocuous enough, but online shopping behemoths like Amazon (Stock Quote: AMZN) and Apple’s iTunes (Stock Quote: AAPL) have perfected the art of making you spend more money than you intended. By bundling desirable items together at a seemingly cheap combined price, you can easily spend $25 or $50 more than you had planned. Your best bet is to make a budget before you venture online, and stick to it, bundle or not.
  2. Hiding discounts. Like most regular shops, online retailers have clearance or discount sections online. But more and more they’re hiding those sections, often sticking them on inside pages of their websites. When shopping online for a specific item, check the discount section first. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, record the actual price (including shipping) and see if it meets your budget.
  3. Hiking shipping fees. Retailers aren’t above sticking an extra buck or two on their shipping charges; it’s as if they hope you won’t notice. It’s much better to check out every shipping option the retailer offers online (they’re likely hiding the cheapest rates below the pricier ones). Better yet, visit a site like Freeshipping.org, a website dedicated to merchants that offer free shipping.
  4. Hiding promotional codes. This tactic is gaining popularity among crafty retailers. First, they draw you in with a tweet, text or email offering goods and services you want, with offers of a promotional code you can apply to the sale. But the fine print often reveals those codes are good “for a limited time only,” so you’re out of luck when you attempt to use the code. It’s better to act quickly, or at least search online for the product you want and see if you get lucky.

Remember, a savvy online retailer has a plan to separate you from your cash. Make sure you have a plan to keep your cash where it belongs—in your pocket.