Avoid Online Shopping Scams This Holiday Season
For some consumers, online shopping is as entertaining, if not more so, than shopping in a physical store. There’s no waiting in line or walking around trying to figure out where the items you’re looking for are kept. You also save on travel expenses and don’t have to spend time searching for your car in the parking lot afterwards!
Online stores tend to have a much larger inventory than physical storefronts too, allowing you to find products not available locally. And of course there’s the handy search feature that will quickly and easily locate items you’re looking for, as well as better pricing since they don’t pay the same overhead costs as your local stores.
With all of the conveniences online shopping has to offer, what’s not to love? Well, unbeknownst to some are the risks of using the internet. It can appear safe to enter your personal information on some of your favorite online stores’ websites, but there’s a chance that someone could have created or led you to a website that is pretending to be legitimate.
The unfortunate part of the internet is that it’s not very hard to create a website that looks exactly like a legitimate one in order to trick customers into entering their personal information or even persuade them to download malware. There’s always the chance of your favorite online store being hacked as well, so even when you are visiting legitimate websites, the risk remains. However, there are ways to avoid some common security mistakes, use security software and services to your advantage, and continue shopping online without an issue.
For starters, here are some practical ways you can tell if an online store is legitimate.
It’s not uncommon for a website to have bad reviews floating around on the net if it’s illegitimate or has previously scammed someone. There are multiple websites you can use to check for reviews of different businesses and brands. One such website is Consumer Affairs, which will allow you to search for companies or specific products.
Other options include SiteJabber, a website that focuses on customer reviews specifically about online shopping sites. Though consumer reviews are not always 100 percent trustworthy, customers are far more likely to post a negative review which can help you avoid scam websites.
If you happen to be a member of Consumer Reports, they also review businesses and list their legitimate addresses online. They specialize in comparing the quality of products and services businesses offer and provide in-depth information on topics such as shipping practices and the quality of customer support.
Although the Better Business Bureau offers an online search tool, not all businesses are BBB accredited, so it may not be the best option, particularly for new or small businesses.
Spotting Online Shopping Fraud
Often illegitimate websites will have subtle signs that something is wrong. A website you visit frequently that has been hijacked or has had a fake clone made of it will typically exhibit a few differences from the original. Poor grammar is usually a big tip off, as many online criminals reside in non-native English speaking countries.
Legitimate websites will usually check for spelling errors and other amateur mistakes, so it is significantly more likely that you’ll encounter these idiosyncrasies on websites looking to defraud you. Before clicking around the website, read carefully.
Unfitting ads and extraordinarily flashy banners can also be tipoffs that something is wrong with a website. Legitimate businesses do host ads, but usually with at least some reserve for the amount displayed on your screen. “Click here” type banners are distracting for a business trying to sell you something and wouldn’t typically be used.
Professional websites will use different fonts with wide ranges of sizes and styles. If a website appears in uniform text without many buttons or custom designs, you may want to steer clear.
Look for contact information, addresses and other ways to help identify the business. Any online merchant trying to sell you something should offer a way to get ahold of them other than their website so it would be odd for those pieces of information to be missing.
Unsafe or Questionable Web Addresses
Ordinarily, businesses will use a web address that contains the name of their business. While this is not always the case, you should be mindful of strange web addresses. Suspiciously similar but different web addresses, such as Walmartgiftcard.com vs. Walmart.com, are also signs that you should probably steer clear.
Random mixtures of letters are a sure sign of a website masquerading as a legitimate one. Though images are sometimes hosted at addresses in that way, it’s a method used by scammers who create multiple fake websites in order to steal people’s information.
When checking out, look for a secure address that begins with https:// rather than just http:// as the former means the address takes measures to safeguard your security. Your browser will help verify the security of the website if https is used, as a valid security certificate must be installed for it to work properly.
If you find yourself visiting a website unwittingly after trying to go somewhere else, you may have malware sometimes referred to as a browser hijacker. It can send you to a website other than where you planned to visit regardless of the address you input.
To avoid ending up somewhere unsafe, ensure that you have an up-to-date anti-virus program installed such as Panda or AVG. They can help reduce the likelihood that your shopping experience is interrupted by malware.
If you’re connected to an unsecured network by using a public WiFi, hackers may be able to influence where you go or directly place malware into your system. Installing a Virtual Private Network (VPN) can help avoid this problem by hiding your computer behind a remote server that acts as a safe path between you and the rest of the internet.
If you do a lot of shopping online, you’ll probably want a fast and reliable VPN such as ExpressVPN. Although you’ll need to pay a small subscription fee, the increase in security can eliminate many of the aforementioned problems without impacting your browsing negatively.
Experience is Key
The more online shopping you do, the more likely you are to start noticing when something isn’t right. Though websites frequently alter their layouts to roll in new and exciting designs, the experience should be very similar across all legitimate businesses. When something is off, it’s a sign you may be steering into dangerous waters.
Use your best judgment and avoid anything that could endanger your devices, your identity or your finances. Deals that seem too good to be true probably are, and the internet is no exception. When in doubt, ask a friend or try a Google search. It might just save you some real trouble.
Do you have any tips on how to spot an illegitimate website? Share them with us in the comment section below.
Cassie Phillips is a blogger for SecureThoughts.com, an internet security website that focuses on practical safety for both businesses and everyday users. As a fellow online shopper, she advocates choosing your sellers carefully and always keeping the most up to date security software installed.