Shopping online has become almost as commonplace as walking into a shop on the high street. I remember making my first order from Amazon in late 1998 and being quite thrilled by the sheer convenience of it. Nowadays, even our local bookshop sells specialist books from its own website.
But today’s online consumers have an extra concern: the increasing risk of card-not-present fraud, which now accounts for half of all credit-card crime, according to Apacs, the UK payments association. Crooks get hold of your card details through a card-skimming device or by raiding your bins, then start spending – usually online.
Phishing emails are another danger, duping punters into disclosing their details. They think they’ve clicked through to a genuine e-commerce site, when it’s actually a dodgy dealer’s domain.
So how can you protect yourself online? We’ve outlined some of the precautions that you should be taking here, but a touch of common sense wouldn’t go amiss either. Stay safe by following the same procedures that you would if you bought something by mail order.
If a site feels dodgy, trust your instincts. Don’t be pressured into completing a transaction or be swayed by too-good-to-be-true prices.
If you’re buying from an auction site such as eBay, make sure you know exactly what you’re doing before you bid. There’s plenty of advice available online, and it never hurts to read the FAQs – twice.
Take care of the mundane details, too: ensure that your goods can be safely delivered and inspect your purchase as soon as possible. This way, any problems can be dealt with in a timely fashion.
1. Internet Explorer’s AutoComplete feature can be handy, but it isn’t great for combating online fraudsters. Stop it auto-entering your password via Tools, Internet Options, Content, AutoComplete Settings. Deselect ‘User names and passwords on forms’ and ‘Prompt me to save passwords’.
2. If you’ve previously saved your usernames and passwords for e-commerce sites in Internet Explorer, it’s a good idea to delete these to stop would-be criminals getting their hands on them. Choose Tools, Internet Options and select the General tab. Click ‘Delete history’, ‘Delete passwords’ and ‘Delete forms’.
3. Before giving out your credit-card details online, make sure no one is eavesdropping. A router will provide a hardware firewall. Check that your software firewall is in place by choosing Start, Control Panel, Windows Firewall. Click ‘Change Settings’ if you want to block incoming connections.
4. You should be using an up-to-date version of your web browser, plus antivirus software that includes antispyware. To make sure Windows’ built-in antispyware is switched on, open Windows Defender and choose Tools, then make sure that automatic scanning and real-time protection are ticked.
5. Shopping on public computers or over public networks is dangerous. There could be keylogging software or hardware installed on the PC itself; someone might even be using packet-sniffing software to spy on you. Avoid logging into financially sensitive user accounts in public. And never, ever enter your credit-card details.
6. URLs can be enough to warn you off a site. If it starts with numbers, is very long or makes extensive use of unusual characters such as ‘%’, avoid it. A web browser will ignore anything written to the left of an @ sign when placed in a URL and direct you somewhere entirely different.
7. Legitimate shopping sites will encrypt your data before passing it across the internet. When you enter payment mode, check that the site’s URL begins https://. If it doesn’t, refuse to hand over credit-card information. A closed padlock or key should also appear on the taskbar at checkout.
8. But https isn’t an absolute guarantee – criminals can register for these security certificates too. For more dependable protection, ensure you never click on an unknown web link in any email message and always keep your phishing filter turned on. (In Internet Explorer, choose Tools, Phishing Filter.)
9. You’ve found a great deal online, but you’ve never heard of the shop. What now? Check it out before you buy. Google the shop’s name and address to double-check that the business has an actual physical location. If it’s an eBay store, be sure to check the seller’s feedback profile and seller ratings.
11. Before paying up, make sure you understand the retailer’s delivery and return policies. Your sweetheart won’t be best pleased with flowers arriving on 15 February – and you won’t like paying a courier to return unsuitable goods. Avoid disappointment by knowing where you stand before things go wrong.
12. Choose your payment method carefully. PayPal is very secure and doesn’t require you to give out your card details. You can dispute payments under its protection scheme if necessary. A credit card is another option; the provider will protect you in the event of fraud. Debit cards give direct access to your bank account.
13. A credit card presents an easy method of online payment – until it gets abused by an unscrupulous site. To limit your card’s exposure, use a gift card or prepaid credit card instead (see which-prepaid-card.co.uk). These cards may not offer the same protection against supplier bankruptcy or faulty goods, however.
14. If your experience turns sour, you’ll need properly documented records to present to a small-claims court. Print out any web pages containing the seller’s contact information, the product description and details of their legal terms, as well as order/shipping confirmations and any emails between you and the seller.