Christmas shopping always starts out fun but, before long, festive overload kicks in and we end up stressed, distracted and in a hurry – a perfect scenario for an internet shopping scam. But this isn't the only time of year that you could fall into the trap of the sales scammer.
One common trick is to set up a website selling the latest must-have gadget, usually one that’s sold out everywhere else. Then, after collecting orders, the company disappears.
Richard Fairley, a 35-year-old IT manager from south London, fell into this trap last Christmas. “I was hunting for a Nintendo Wii at the last minute and came across an online shop that still had some available. I paid £180, which seemed reasonable, and booked express delivery.”
When the games console failed to arrive, Richard called the company, only to find that the number was out of order. He emailed and got no reply. He then went back to the site and discovered it was no longer there. “It finally dawned on me that I’d been scammed,” he says.
Of course, you can protect yourself from criminals by only buying through well-known companies. Rob Barnes, head of shopping at Moneysupermarket.com, says: “One option is to stick to brands you already know and trust.” But there are plenty of lesser-known sites that are perfectly legitimate. So, if you’re planning to buy from a company that you haven’t come across before, do some research first.
David J Smith, head of operations at the e-retailers’ association, IMRG, says: “Read the terms and conditions, and find an address and phone number. Call the number to make sure it connects, and make sure it’s a real address rather than a Post Office box.
Just because a company has a .co.uk website doesn’t mean it’s based here, so make sure it operates from the UK.” Smith advises printing a copy of these details, any emails you send and receive, and the order. He adds that when you go through the payment process you should look for the padlock symbol that shows it’s a secure site.
Also check for trustmarks. For example, the IMRG’s Internet Shopping Is Safe (ISIS) logo means that websites adhere to its code of practice and, if they fall foul of the rules, IMRG can intervene on your behalf.
Likewise, when you click on the VeriSign trustmark it will tell you the business name and location. Tim Callan, product marketing director at VeriSign, says: “If the company doesn’t deliver, we will tell you where to go for recompense.”
Alternatively, you can use a third-party shopping site. Moneysupermarket.com, for example, only lists sites that go through its authentication procedure. Barnes says: “They have to have been trading for a certain period to be accepted, and most scam sites won’t bother to go through the process.”
Kelkoo.co.uk, meanwhile, features user reviews and ratings. Managing director Bruce Fair says: “A week after someone makes a purchase through the site we contact them for feedback. Comments and star ratings are a good indicator – if a site has a zero or only one star it’s not a good idea to buy from them.”
Paying by credit card will offer additional protection. Smith says: “If the goods are worth over £100, you have cover under the Consumer Credit Act so, if the company disappears, you can claim the money back from your credit card company.”
Another common trick is the phishing email, which claims to be from one of the big brands, saying you need to input your credit card details again. This could fool you if you’ve just placed an order, but they are completely bogus.
Barnes says: “If there were any problems, the card would have been refused during the ordering process, so there’s never any need to contact you for the details again.”
Alternatively, emails may direct you to a site masquerading as a brand you know and trust. Callan warns: “Be ultra-suspicious of anything that comes by email.”
The best approach is to close the email and open the real site in another window, using the website address you know is genuine. You can also check the address in the bar at the top. Callan says: “If you’re looking for myshop.com that’s what it should say first of all. If it says securityservice/myshop.com then it’s from someone else.”
Criminals can also spy on your purchases to steal your card details. Richard Hales, UK and Ireland manager at F-Secure, says: “Make sure your computer, internet connection and web browser are secure.” You should have the latest operating system and anti-virus software, and should also get your machine scanned and cleaned regularly.
There are sites that do this for free, such as trendmicro.com/housecall. It’s also worth ordering your purchases at home or work on your own machine, not when you’re out and about, using an unsecured wireless network. And vary your passwords for each website as much as possible, so that if a criminal gets into one they can’t get into them all.
Unfortunately, APACS, the UK payments association, says only 48% of online shoppers take proper precautions. It’s easy to see why – buying presents, particularly at Christmas, can seem like a big enough hassle without having to investigate retailers and keeping your computer software up to date.
But it really is worth taking the time to ensure internet shopping is the godsend it should be, rather than just one more thing to worry about.