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COLUMBIA - For some the holiday season means family, friends, and food.

For others, it means stores, sales, and shopping.

Black Friday continues to grow as the beginning of holiday shopping season. CNN estimates Americans spent nearly $5 billion on it this year.

But, for the first time, online shopping revenue surpassed in-store purchases. Retail giants Amazon, Walmart, and Best Buy each had three million people visit their website on Black Friday alone.

"It's pretty amazing if you think about it, with a few clicks of a mouse or a swipe of your finger, you can find just about anything online shopping," said MU law professor Amy Schmitz, who studies online consumer protection.

However, while online shopping can be a fun and even productive experience, it can also be dangerous. Local experts like Schmitz warn that online scams peak in December, while people try to buy gifts for loved ones.

"Fraudsters have become really pretty good at sort of making it look like it's a legitimate website," Schmitz said. "That's where we, as consumers, need to be careful with who we're dealing with."

Better Business Bureau Regional Director Sean Spence said the best way to make sure you are shopping safely is to make sure you know exactly who you're doing business with.

"Make sure you do your research. Doing your research will solve most problems related to online shopping," he said.

However, if you don't know who the retailer is, both Spence and Schmitz said it's important to use your credit card.

"You have to use the credit card, not a debit card, because a credit card makes it much easier to recover the money if you are scammed," Spence said.

Spence and Schmitz recommended buying from established marketplaces, like Amazon and eBay. While those sites do allow third party sellers, both offer consumer dispute programs that give customers easier access to getting their money back.

Schmitz said if you do get caught in a scam, it's important to take action immediately.

"The most important thing is to pull your credit report and see what's on there that is not legitimate," she said. "You are going to have to write letters and get that clarified. Make phone calls. It can be very time consuming and it's a headache."

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