The online shopping experience can be quite daunting to the novice online shopper. But shopping online can help you save money, so the experience should be embraced, albeit with a bit of caution in mind. Here are some hints and tips for things to watch out for when you are shopping online.
1. Use your credit card
The main tip when shopping online is to use your credit card. Credit cards have an extra level of protection that a debit card does not – you're covered if anything goes wrong with the transaction. Not only will you be covered if your details are stolen and unauthorised transactions appear, you also can claim against your credit card company if you buy a product which is faulty within the warranty period. So for example, if you buy something from a store that goes out of business, you can still claim under warranty from your credit card provider if anything goes wrong.
2. Protect your passwords
Many people don't realise that one of the main points of vulnerability when online shopping might be the usernames and password that you use on various sites. If you use the same username and password everywhere, if the data on one site is compromised, then the thief will have access to your accounts on many other sites.
Be smart about passwords – and never use the same one twice. You might think this is impossible, but there are tools and browser add-ons that can help you out here. Personally, I use Roboform password manager, but there are other choices out there (Keepass, 1password) for the various platforms, including the password managers built-in to your browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, etc).
When setting up an account on a new site, make it a randomly generated password, E.g. 2pXPLdizCKiWmdcP. Cheeky social engineers will find it impossible to crack, though they can probably guess the password that contains your child's name and birthday.
3. Use your eyes
If you're browsing an online store that you've never heard of before, there are some pretty basic checks that you can do to diagnose their reliability. Things to check for on their site:
- Spelling and grammar errors – can be a sign of a hastily thrown together dodgy site
- Blank pages on the site, or ones that contain holding information (such as “insert headers here”)
- Little or no details on the contact us page, perhaps a webform only contact, no email address, physical address or phone number
- Stolen information – copy and paste some text into an internet search engine and see if they've copied info from another site, such as their “about us” description
Off-site, a simple search with some targeted keywords can be useful too. E.g. Search for “have you bought from X store,” or “X store review.” Hopefully you'll find some evidence and reviews from past shoppers. But take these with a pinch of salt, some of the reviews may be seeded by employees or company representatives – so make sure you undertake a wide search on the topic, and keep in mind that some reviews may potentially be fake.
4. Check out the domain – WHOIS?
One of the most important tools in your online arsenal is a Whois Lookup, even though this is something that many people have never heard of. Basically, when you do a Whois lookup, you can find out the information about the website domain, such as who it is registered to, what country it's registered in, and how long it has been active.
There are many sites from which you can perform a Whois lookup, but in my opinion, Domaintools is one of the best. Just bookmark that site, then perform a lookup whenever you want to check out a new site. Input the URL of the site in question, and you will see a list of all the data that is held on that website. For example, if you find out that a store was only created last week, it's probably not a great idea to entrust them with your details.
Using all the above points, you should be able to make an educated decision as to whether or not to trust the website to purchase the goods or services. In brief; use a credit card, use unique passwords for all your accounts, visually check out the site, and finally do some research on the domain.