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How to stay safe when doing your Christmas shopping online: Avoid scams and mistakes that could cost you dear

Protect yourself from scammers while buying your presents this year

How to stay safe shopping online this Christmas

Christmas is a joyous time of food, family, and peace to all men. Of course if you’ve ever been shopping down Oxford street on December the 24th then you’ll know that the end of the world has come and not even the children can be saved. One way to avoid this carnage is to do all of your shopping online. But as so many people head to the web in search of bargains, the amount of scams, tricks, and general dangers lie in wait for the unwary shopper. Fear not, we're here to explain how to stay safe shopping online this Christmas. Also see our Best tech gifts for Christmas 2014

Stay safe shopping online: Bargains that bite

We all love to save money, but criminals know this all too well and use our frugality as a classic scam to part us from our cash. No doubt the next few weeks will see your inbox overflowing from companies offering deals and discounts for a variety of products. Many of these will be genuine, but this is the prime time of year for fake emails to appear with amazing short-term offers that you need to respond to immediately before they get snapped up. The general rule of thumb online, as in life, is that if something seems too good to be true, the chances are that’s probably the case.

These sort of fake missives are called ‘Phishing’ emails, and are a well used ploy by  cybercriminals to trick you into revealing your bank details. In short, if you receive any email - no matter how convincing the icons and layout might seem - that requires you to enter your account details, don’t click through to do so. If it’s a reputable site, simply navigate there manually yourself from your browser and the deal should be available. Advanced hackers sometimes set up sites that look exactly the same as the one you’re expecting (at least for a page or two anyway) and it can be an easy mistake to log in, then get a nasty surprise when your bank account is subsequently emptied.

Stay safe shopping online: Fly-by-night sites

Setting up a website these days is a simple affair, and can be done in a matter of hours by those with even a modicum of technological prowess. Bear this in mind if you find yourself drawn to incredible discounts that undercut many of the high street names. While they could be true, it’s also a distinct possibility that the website is acting as a honeypot for your money, and once you’ve entered your account details they will be harvested by neredowells who will happily spend the rest of your Christmas budget then disappear into the ether.

To begin with, it's worth checking out the retailer you plan to buy from. Even if you're using a well known brand, use Web Of Trust or another authenticity checker to confirm the site really does belong to the retailer in question and is not part of a phishing scam designed to obtain your credit card details. Next, if you're using a smaller online retailer you've never heard of before, Lesley Cowley, chief executive of Nominet, says it pays to "take a few minutes to search for the company on the internet and check their reputation".

"Look for a telephone number for the company. Ring it and check it works if you have any concerns," said Cowley. Telephone numbers, providing they're genuine and in use, are a good sign, email addresses and the lack of a postal address should set alarm bells ringing.

It might seem harsh, especially for enterprising small businesses, but our advice is simply to shop on sites that you know to be reputable - or at least an ongoing concern - rather than take a chance on an obscure outlet that might be gone in the morning.

Stay safe shopping online: At the checkout

Meanwhile, Jon Callas, CTO of security solutions firm Entrust, warned web users not to let their guard down when they hit the online checkout. According to Callas, online shoppers need to look out for several things before inputting their credit or debit card details into a website.

"If the site has an EV (extended validation) certificate the address bar will be green and the business name will be readily visible," he said. This means that the site has met a specific set of security guidelines which are independently verified, and that the site can be trusted.

Secure Sockets Layers (SSL) are used to ensure data is encrypted before being transmitted across the web and also indicate an organisation has been verified. Callas says potential purchasers should keep an eye out for https in the address bar rather than just the standard http, as this highlights a site uses SSL.

You should also look out for the padlock within your browser, which is one of the main security features of basic SSL.

"Depending on what browser you use, it might be on the address bar or somewhere else like the title bar. But if you click on it, you will see security information about the site you're on," he said.

Furthermore, respectable organisations will display the site seal of their SSL certificate provider either on their home page or during the checkout process. He also recommends clicking on the site seal to ensure it's legitimate. You should also verify that the date and name of the organisation are consistent with the site you're visiting.

Those using public Wi-Fi, especially if it's unsecured, need to be extra careful as "you never know who could be listening", according to Callas.

"Double-check that there's SSL, and that the certification is good. Be extra, extra careful on a public computer; don't do anything financial or involving a password unless you must, as these are easily riddled with malware."

Sat safe shoping online: Delivery times

One of the advantages of going to the high street is that you return with your presents nestling under your arms. Online shopping saves the trip and potential physical assaults, but has a few worries of its own. It’s very important to remember that buying your presents from a website is something best done a few weeks before Christmas, rather than as a hurried, last minute affair. Of course sites such as Amazon offer next day delivery at a price (or as part of the Amazon Prime service) but you still have to be in to receive them, and delays can happen at Post Offices with the huge amount of mail that goes through the sorting offices at this time of year. Always thoroughly check the availability of items before you click Buy, and remember that sites like Amazon sell for other companies that might not be based in the UK. Order early, and order carefully.

Stay safe shopping online: Returning goods

Doing your Christmas shopping early can certainly avoid many of the perils mentioned above, but one last thing to consider is that if you need to return an item that doesn’t fit, or was also bought by another family member, you may have already passed the date agreed by the site in question. Check when ordering that returns can be made after thirty days, as it’s very easy to go past that when you factor in early deliveries and the general distraction that Christmas brings.

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