Make sure the online shop is trustworthy
One of the great benefits of the internet is the sheer range of goods we can now buy - it's now easier than ever for anyone to set up a shop to sell all sorts of products.
But amongst all the honest small traders are, sadly, a few rogue businesses that are out to scam you and I. Whether that's by outright fraud, or by just selling low quality goods, there's several risks to buying online that we should be aware of. There's also some shops that - whilst they may have honest intentions - may just be really, really bad at customer service!
If there's a website you're considering buying from, but who you're not familiar with, then think about doing these checks:
- Use other people's experiences: The best way to spot bad vendors is to read reviews of them - look for themes and trends rather than individual complaints (not many people go online to praise companies!).
- If the seller is within an established marketplace, such as Amazon, eBay, or Etsy, then check their reviews out on the parent website.
- If the seller is an independant shop with their own website then use a search engine to look for "[name of shop] reviews".
- Check what you're buying: Always carefully read the description of what you're buying and be suspicious of anything that sounds too good to be true - for big purchases it can also be worth printing out the product page for evidence if anything goes wrong later on.
- Always double check delivery details too - when can you expect to receive your order? What is the returns policy?
- Is it a legitimate company? Some scam websites are set up in foreign companies away from local law enforcement; sometimes the use of poor English on the website can give clues to this.
- Check to see if the business is registered in the country they claim to be. Do they have a realworld presence with a physical address and a contact phone number? Maybe even check the address on Google StreetView.
- Is it a brand new website? You could also check how new a website is - any site registered within the last few days is highly suspicious. Look up the web address using a tool such as this one and look for the "Creation Date". You can also often find out who owns the website this way too.
Paying for goods or services
Protect your card details
When you make a purchase online always make sure the payments page is encrypted. This basically means that your credit card details will be scrambled as they're sent to the retailer, preventing anyone from snooping on them.
Look for the padlock symbol and 'https' in the address bar. This example screenshot was taken whilst using the Chrome browser, but you'll see similar details on all web browsers.
You can check if your connection is secure by looking for https:// at the start of the web address (the 's' stands for 'secure'), as well as a padlock symbol in the address bar. These mean that the data will be scrambled up so that it's not readable to anyone else.
If you're using a mobile phone (where there's not the screen width available to display everything) then note that some browsers may not always show the https://. Do however always make sure that a padlock is showing!
Where possible too try not to make any online payments whilst using public wifi - these can sometimes be broken by hackers to read your card details. If you can then use your mobile phone's cellular data, install a VPN ('Virtual Private Network'), or wait until you get home.
Use credit cards instead of debit cards
Paying for goods with a credit card will often get you some form of additional protection against things going wrong. The level of protection does vary between countries and card providers, however they are almost always a better choice than using debit cards.
In the UK for example the Consumer Credit Act 1974 provides strong legal protections for credit card users for any item worth over £100, such as for cases where the item you bought doesn't arrive or is faulty. For a great explanation of what's covered see MoneySavingExpert.com. Certain other countries also have legal protections too.
Even if there's no law in your country covering purchases made by credit card you may still be able to get refunds to your credit card under a scheme called Chargeback (banks sometimes operate this for payments made by debit cards too). If you ever have a dispute with an online retailer which isn't being resolved then check with your credit card company or bank to see if they can help.
Paying individuals from classified ads
When you're buying from an individual (such as for something you've seen advertised on Craigslist or Gumtree) then credit cards won't be an option. In these cases the safest ways to pay are either through a secure payment service such as PayPal, or directly to the person in cash once you've seen the goods you're buying. With PayPal you get more protection thanks to their "Buyer Protection" scheme which will cover you in case anything goes wrong (subject to certain conditions).
Never send any money to someone you don't know via Western Union or Moneygram.
These money transfer services are designed for sending money to people you already know and trust, not strangers. There's no protection for buyers and they are regularly abused by fraudsters. For the same reason you should also never make direct payments to the seller's bank accounts either. If anyone tries to pressure you into paying by either of these methods then just walk away & take your business elsewhere.
Know your rights
Each country around the world has different laws setting out your rights as a customer when purchasing goods online.
In the UK the relevant law is the Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013. This gives you several rights that are unique to buying online:
- You can't be charged for any goods or services which are pre-ticked boxes on a website;
- You can cancel any service contracts you entered into (such as gym membership) up to 14 days after you bought it;
- You can return goods to the retailer for a full refund up to 14 days after receiving them.
There are various conditions associated with these rights. For further information check out the guide on the Which? website.
There's some other basic tips that you should always follow when online shopping too:
- Always have up to date antivirus software running.
- If you need to create a user account on the website then make sure you use a strong & unique password. It can be a pain remembering yet another password, so if you don't think you'll ever use this website again (and won't need to login to track the progress of your order) then you could always just type in a load of junk as the password. Should you ever find that you do need to login again then follow the password reset process.
- Be aware of phishing emails that claim you have a parcel waiting; these are fake & could infect your computer with a virus. If you are genuinely expecting a parcel then it can be very easy to be fooled by these emails. See our Phishing pages for more advice.