Updated: 2 December 2021

Laurie Hood, expert on financial crime and Starling Bank team member, shares tips on how to help stay safe when shopping online.

If you stumble upon a great deal online, it’s often hard to resist, isn’t it? But, it’s important to remain vigilant, to protect yourself and those you care about.

The internet gives us a fantastic amount of choices, at relative ease and convenience. However, it also provides the unscrupulous individuals out there with a platform to scam unsuspecting shoppers.

One of the more common methods is via the use of fake websites to offer goods or services which the fraudster has no intention of supplying. But, an online shopping scam doesn’t just have to involve paying for an item that doesn’t arrive. It can also be paying for an item you believe to be genuine, only to be supplied with a counterfeit, which can be dangerous – in the case of electronics or dietary supplements, for example.

And the old saying still helps: if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is. With this in mind, it’s important to know how to identify such scams.

How can I spot a fake website?

Before you commit to a purchase, take a good look at the website.

How did you access the website? Did you click on a link in an unsolicited email, text message or online ad? That can be dangerous, by clicking such links you may inadvertently provide fraudsters with your personal and financial details. Where you can, use previously tested or trusted links.

If you click on a suspect link, you may be diverted to what looks like a legitimate site and then once there, inadvertently provide your personal details to a fraudster, for example through a login or registration process. Alternatively, accessing these sites could result in damaging or unwanted software being installed on your device.

Of course, many of our favourite sites (including social media and email providers) entice us with ads as we browse. If you have any doubts about the legitimacy of an advert, it is sensible to visit the website of the company or product you’re interested in directly, rather than relying on redirection.

Take a moment to review the URL. Is everything as it should be? Some of the more sophisticated fake websites may appear to be the legitimate site you’re intending to browse, but may include a very slight misspelling in the URL. It would also be unusual for a retail website to use .org or .net domains.

Another excellent tip is to keep an eye on the grammar and spelling on the website. If the page is littered with spelling mistakes or poorly formed sentences – alarm bells should be ringing. Be sure to make use of any available tabs on the website, such as the ‘about us’ or ‘contact us’ sections, which are frequently available. If these are broken links, or contain generic or unhelpful information, perhaps not providing direct contact information, you should avoid the website.

Buying from a website

When you’ve got past the browsing stage of a website, there are still opportunities to spot red flags.

If you’re making a purchase from a website you should be able to pay by debit/credit card. If the website requires payment by bank transfer, take a moment to think about the transaction. Very few legitimate websites will request a bank transfer: it offers you little protection as a customer and it can be difficult for your bank to get your money returned if something goes wrong.

One more thing to consider is the returns policy. This should be clearly documented on the website (possibly alongside some data protection information or general terms and conditions). If the website offers no details on its returns policy (such as no return shipping address or delivery details) then steer clear, it might be a scam.

Of course, purchase scams aren’t just limited to retail websites and can occur elsewhere.

Buying from social media or a marketplace

Whilst most legitimate retail sites clearly document their refund, returns or dispute handling processes, it can be more of a grey area for social media or marketplace sites. So, the first step before making any purchase from such a site is to understand what protection is offered to you, as a buyer.

Some marketplace sites and methods of payment (such as eBay/Paypal), offer various levels of protection, whilst others may fall short.

Social media marketplaces (such as Facebook) and some other marketplace apps (such as Gumtree), can rely on you managing a purchase with a stranger/seller yourself. You should avoid making any full or partial (deposit) payments to strangers online. Especially if you’re making a large value purchase, such as a vehicle, tech goods, property or holiday/flights. Consider asking to see the goods on a video call, that way it may help you to determine if the items are up to scratch.

If the seller insists on an up-front payment by bank transfer or international payment, this is a warning sign. Take a moment to think – is this deal too good to be true?

But, there are positive reviews?

You may have found positive reviews for the item or seller - don’t immediately assume that this makes the seller, or item, legitimate - especially if there are only a handful from reviewers who have written little or no other feedback.

Unfortunately, there is a market for fabricated or fake reviews to trick unsuspecting shoppers who think they are getting a bargain.

If you’re unsure – always remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

When you’re shopping online, always take time to think about safety. For more advice on how to stay safe, you can visit the website of our friends over at TakeFive. Take Five to Stop Fraud is a national campaign, backed by the government, that offers advice to help everyone protect themselves from financial fraud.

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