With the UK's 14.3 million online shoppers spending over £1bn this Christmas, according to the latest figures from Imrg (Interactive Media in Retail Group), the need to be vigilant when ordering goods on the net has never been more vital.
This year Apacs (Association for Payment Clearing Services) published a report which found that fraudulent use of card details in internet, mail and telephone orders had gone up by 31 percent from 2000 to 2001. And it could be even higher this year as more and more of us buy over the web.
The banking industry is already starting to address this problem and by 2005 all UK debit and credit transactions will be authorised by a customer keying in a personal identification number instead of a signature. But in the mean time there are steps you can take to make sure that you keep your card details as safe as possible while shopping online.
Imrg's consumer information service Isis (Internet Shopping Is Safe) has issued its top 10 tips for secure online buying. So if you still have some last-minute purchases you want to make for Christmas, or you plan to spend some of your present money online, make sure you stick to Isis' guidelines:
1. All your usual shopping rights apply to online transactions. For more information see www.consumer.gov.uk.
2. Know who you're dealing with, make sure you get the seller's phone number and postal address.
3. Be aware of terms and conditions and check payment and delivery details.
4. Keep records of what you order, so print out any pages with order confirmations and numbers and file them somewhere safe.
5. EU law protects you against fraudulent use of your payment card in EU transactions: credit cards give you extra protection, some even offer special protection against online fraud. American Express Blue, for instance, offers an online fraud protection guarantee.
6. Only give your payment card details over a secure connection, and never by email. To check that a website is secure, look for a key or lock icon; the key will be broken and the lock open if the page is not secure. These are clear indications that the merchant doesn't have its act together. Also never disclose your personal identification number to anyone, and never send it over the internet. Don't give sellers any personal details that aren't necessary to the transaction.
7. You usually have at least seven days to cancel an order and request a refund from an EU retailer.
8. Check your payment card statement carefully as you have at least 90 days to report a suspect transaction.
9. When you buy goods online from outside the EU you are an importer and may be liable to pay any Customs Duty and VAT; err on the side of caution as it may be difficult to seek redress if problems arise.
10. If you have a problem, contact the seller then, if you need to, the payment card company, local Trading Standards Office and any Trustmark organisation the seller is registered with.
Isis also publishes a list of the best online retailers at www.imrg.org/internet-shopping-is-safe.
There are three other handy hints we think are worth bearing in mind. For starters never buy from spammers. Unsolicited offers sent to you via email generally really are too good to be true, however if you are offered fantastic deals on big brands call the company in question direct and find out if the offer is legitimate or not.
Secondly, if you are buying software or CDs check they are not pirate copies by making sure the seller has genuine proof of authenticity. If you are being offered something for a price that is way under the market value there is probably something wrong with it.
But if you stick to these rules and use your common sense online shopping really can take a lot of the strain out of the festive season and beyond. And with a billion pounds worth of consumers' money being spent on the web, we're sure it is here to stay.