Online shopping has never been more popular. The reasons are easy to see since buying online saves time and money. Before you hit the virtual stores, review our tips:

1. Always use a secure Internet connection when making a purchase.

Reputable sites use technologies such as SSL (Secure Socket Layer) that encrypt data during transmission. You can tell if this technology is in use when you see a lock icon in your web browser window. Another way is to check the address of the web page you are accessing; it should begin with “https”. By the way, never send your credit card number by e-mail.

2. Shop with businesses you already know and trust.

Many retailers now offer online shopping. One advantage is that some let you return merchandise to their stores, instead of shipping it back. If you want to make a purchase from a store you haven’t heard of before, do some research. Start with the Better Business Bureau. Also, make sure the site lists a physical address, not just a post office box.

Finally, check to see if it displays seals from consumer protection organizations such as the previously mentioned Better Business Bureau Online and TRUSTe. However, keep in mind that these images on their own don’t mean a whole lot since they can be easily copied and added to any webpage. Clicking on the image should take you to a webpage that verifies that the website is BBB or TRUSTe certified.

You can also see what other shoppers have to say about a particular merchant by checking reviews at Bizrate and by doing a search with Google. Enter the name of the merchant along with the keyword “scam”. You may discover some interesting results.

3. Look for coupons and other discounts.

Many online merchants offer rebates that can save you a bundle of money. To receive the discount, typically you enter the coupon code in the order form. It’s then deducted from the total purchase price.

For travelers, many airline sites offer weekly specials and e-fares. To keep informed of these discounts, sign up for newsletters at their websites.

Before checking out from a website it’s worth taking a few minutes to visit RetailMeNot to check and see if there are any current offers that might apply to the retailer you’re buying from.

4. Comparison shop.

So-called shopping bots compare prices for products across dozens of websites. You’d be amazed at the range of prices. Start with these:

5. Be skeptical.

Be wary of deals that appear too good to be true. They probably are. If you have suspicions, contact the merchant directly. No phone number listed on the site? Then take your business somewhere else. Also, take a few minutes to research the site online by using a search engine to search for the name of the website along with the word “scam”.

6. Check the shipping costs.

Shipping, especially for next day delivery, could make the total purchase price more than what you would pay in a retail store. At one time, many sites offered free shipping as a way to attract customers. While those days are over except during the holidays, some sites still offer free or discounted shipping for select items, purchases over a certain amount, or with a valid coupon code.

7. Protect private information.

All reputable sites should post a privacy policy that explains what they do with customer information. Take a few minutes to review it. If you don’t agree with the policy – some sites sell data to third parties – don’t shop at the site. Even if you have no objections, don’t provide unnecessary information by filling out the optional fields in the order form.

8. Review the return and refund policies.

How can you return unwanted merchandise? How long do you have? Will you receive a full refund? Who pays for return shipping? An e-tailer should provide answers. If not, call the merchant before you buy.

9.Pay with plastic.

In the U.S., credit cards offer the same consumer protection whether shopping online or offline – you are liable only for $50 USD if your card is used fraudulently, and quite often the credit card company won’t hold you liable for any fraudulent charges. You can also challenge charges and withhold payment in the event of a dispute with a merchant.

An alternative payment option, particularly for buying from auction sites, is setting up an account with PayPal. You electronically transfer money from your bank account into your PayPal account, then use it to pay merchants. This ensures that you are only trusting PayPal with the details of your financial accounts and not ever online store you make a purchase from.

10. Print a copy of your order for your records.

After you submit an order, you will get a screen with details of the transaction. Print out a hard copy or save a copy as a PDF on your computer. Sometimes there is a link to a webpage where you can check the delivery status. You should also receive an e-mail confirmation with details on how to inquire as to the status of your order.