The American economy is all over the news at the moment and for good reason – it affects all of us, from the Wall Street brokers teetering on the edge to homegrown bedroom DJs from the land down under. If you live outside the States, you’re probably rejoicing in the crumbling value of the US dollar, and the price wars that US retailers are forced to fight online. Unfortunately, as always, there’s no shortage of unscrupulous turnips just gagging for a chance to take advantage of your modern willingness to shop online. Shamefully, I came too close to getting scammed on some DJ kit last week, so I’m writing this in the hope that it helps one person put their cash to better use. Here are some tips that would have helped me:

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Even the simplest distribution chain involves the manufacturer, the wholesaler and the retailer adding their margins to the product when they move it along. If you come across something that sells for $1,000 in the bricks and mortar shops for $160 online, something’s not right. This is probably the most powerful enticement to parting you from your hard-earned at the expense of your common sense, and I don’t want to be alarmist – there are some amazing deals out there. Just keep a level head: 30% off is a great discount, but 85% off is just unlikely; you’re going to want to hold the item in your hands before committing, when the price is just too golden.

Check the specs.

Is the website listed as an authorized dealer for the products they offer? What are their delivery and return policies like? Have they listed proper contact details?

If you’re getting suspicious, try a Whois search of the domain and see what you come up with. The site that nearly got me had a signal that went through about eight countries before settling down – and the email address and alleged location of the warehouse were in two other countries. Not a good look.

Then, of course, what does Google have to say about it? If it’s a scam, you might take some comfort from the fact that others before you have probably learned the hard way, and have had their vocal say on some forums.

The crucial moment – clicking Pay.

It’s 2011. If your dream site only accepts, say, Western Union, it’s time to cock an eyebrow. Paypal is established. Google Checkout is established. These systems are the closest thing to a legitimate global online currency we have today, and they owe their success in large part to the security they offer to merchants and consumers alike. Keep an eye out for the signs of a secure payment system that we might have grown a bit complacent about – encryption; authentic logos from fiduciary institutions you know and trust; a variety of traceable payment options. It’s worth looking for this stuff in particular, because the moment you’ve hit Go, your cash is in the hands of the gods. Better hope they’re feeling benevolent, and not to the vendor.

The boring stuff.

Have a think about the voltage requirements in your country, and check them against those of the place you’re buying from. It’s not always enough to use an adapter; you might well find yourself needing to buy an expensive step-up or step-down transformer.

And if something breaks, then what? Manufacturers and retailers will have little sympathy for you if you’ve chosen to buy outside their authorized network, and there’s only one way of finding out how much help your new online friend is going to be – and that might well involve packing up your precious goodies and sending them, at your own expense, halfway around the world on little more than blind hope.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m really not trying to sensationalize the bottom-feeders eking out a living on the 3% who buy first and think later – but they are out there and they do make a living on the careless and the ignorant. So get informed! The internet really is redefining retail in the 21st century and it’s not clear how it might turn out, but for the moment there’s an unprecedented glut of amazing deals to be had. It’s a jungle out there – keep your head screwed on.