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Online fraud rises in the run-up to Christmas. How can you spot the fraudsters and protect yourself?

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You’re smart enough to know not to reply to phishing emails. And you always check the online retailer’s website before you part with your cash. But are you doing enough? Fraudsters know that there’s big money to be made from taking your money and not providing the goods or stealing your identity and card details; and they’ll be particularly active before and after Christmas when your guard may be down.

Shopping online: the basics of online fraud

If you look at the advice that’s dispensed by some consumer organisations, it often says you shouldn’t shop at websites you don’t know. Or you should avoid those that don’t have a bricks and mortar presence. To me, that doesn’t seem realistic. There are lots of great websites out there that are comparatively new to the market or that only operate online. But you should be able to limit your chances of becoming a victim of fraud.

SAVVY TIP: If you pay by credit card you can make a claim against the card company if the goods don’t arrive or the retailer goes bust. But it only applies to goods costing £100 or more. If you buy an iPod costing £100, you’re protected. If you buy two MP3 players costing £100 between them, you wouldn’t be.

  • If you’re ordering high value amounts. Look for a physical address for the company. If the company behind the website is run from a PO Box, think twice.

SAVVY TIP: Tom Ilube who is a data security specialist offers this advice. “If I’m at all nervous of a website, I Google the address. These days you can even see what the company’s headquarters look like. If there’s a contact phone number, I’d probably ring it to check it’s answered by a real human being.”

  • Type the name of the company or shop into Google. Along with the word ‘complaint’ or ‘problem’. This is one of my favourites and something I regularly do if I’m ordering from a new supplier.

SAVVY TIP: Just because a retailer has a couple of complaints against it doesn’t mean it’s a rip off or run by fraudsters. But you’ll know there’s a problem if the complaints thread runs to pages.

  • Be wary of knock-down prices. This is a tricky one because there are some great discount retail sites that specialise in selling below retail price. But it can be a way for fraudsters to sell counterfeit goods or steal your card details.
  • Look for security signs. Depending on the security system the retailer has signed up to, this could be a golden padlock in the browser bar and the prefix ‘https’ when you come to pay for your goods.

SAVVY TIP: Depending on the type of web browser software you use, the padlock could appear at the top or bottom of your computer screen. Click on it to see who the security certificate is owned by. If the supplier doesn’t have a padlock, it could mean they’ve signed up to a different security system, not that there’s a problem with the website.

Staying safe online

There’s lots of information on the basics of staying safe online at websites such as Get Safe Online, Financial Fraud Action and Citizens Advice.

SAVVY TIP: Data security expert Neil Fisher from Unisys recommends dragging emails from people you don’t know to your junk mail folder. “That way you can open it and check the links without damaging your computer.”

Freebie and cashback sites and social networking

Freebie, money saving and cashback sites are popular at the moment. There’s nothing wrong with saving money, but I’m a bit concerned about the amount of information that some of the sites (especially some of the freebie ones) can ask for.

  • If a website asks for lots of information. If you’re asked to provide details that you don’t feel comfortable giving, (especially if you can’t find out anything about the company behind it) see if you can register without filling in those boxes. If you can’t, move on. Be particularly wary if the site asks for a lot of information and it doesn’t have an https or secure connection.
  • Double check special offers that you receive from social networking sites. An increasing number of retailers are using Facebook and Twitter to spread their message with special offer codes and coupons. The chances are they’re genuine. But don’t assume that all website links are OK because they’ve come from someone you’ve met on the site.

SAVVY TIP: The problem with shortened urls is that you often have no idea which website you’re being redirected to. I love using Twitter, but I think there’s a danger of being directed to dodgy sites. Especially if a message has been retweeted so you may not know who it’s come from originally.

Related articles:

VIDEO: What to do if you’re a victim of ID fraud

Ten scams to avoid

Paying by bank transfer – are you protected if there’s a problem with a phone or online payment?

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