Carly went online one day to check her email, and before she knew it, two hours had passed – she had gone from one social-media site to another, clicking every link that looked interesting. She saw an ad for a pill that said she could lose up to 50 pounds without dieting or exercising, with a “free,” 14-day trial. All she had to do was enter a credit-card number to pay for shipping.

The mail carrier delivered a small package of pills within a couple of days. Carly received another, bigger package a couple of weeks later, and then checked her bank statement and saw a $125 charge that she wasn’t expecting. By then she couldn’t even remember the website where she had requested the free trial, or where she had seen the ad. And although she had taken the pills as directed, the only thing that was thinner was her bank balance.

Fortunately, Carly was able to get her money back by disputing the charge with her bank. However, many people aren’t so lucky. There are several steps consumers can take when ordering online, that will help them to avoid scams in the first place:

• Investigate the company before you buy. Bookmark the website and take a screen shot of the advertisement or site so you can find it again if needed.

• Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there are complaints about the company.

• Look at online reviews of the company and its product. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

• Do a search for the company’s physical address if one is listed on the website. Is it a mailbox or co-working space? That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a scam — but it may be harder to get a resolution from a business that doesn’t have a public presence.

• Pay with a credit card instead of a debit card whenever possible. Credit cards often have better protections.

If you already bought something online and are having trouble getting a refund or getting the business to stop making automatic charges, try the following tips:

• Dispute the charge with your bank if you think it was fraudulent or if the business refuses to stand behind its product or service.

• Consider taking the company to Small Claims Court if you lost a substantial sum and are in the same physical location as the address on the website. In California, if a business operates from a commercial mailbox or co-working space, the company that offers the mailbox or co-working space is required to accept court paperwork when their clients are sued.

• File a complaint with the Better Business Bureau or consumer protection agency where the business is located.

If you believe you’ve been defrauded by a business that’s located in Santa Monica, you can contact the City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division at 310-458-8336 or smconsumer.org.

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