Online shopping is now many people's go-to place for buying Christmas gifts, as it's so much easier and more convenient than braving the weather and crowds as we approach the big day. However, internet shopping is fraught with danger, with a number of increasingly complex scammers out there desperate for your hard-earned cash.
However, by following the tips and tricks in this article, you should be able to stay safe throughout the festive season.
Tip 1: Use common sense
We all love to save money, but criminals know this all too well and use our frugality as a classic scam to part us from our cash. No doubt your inbox is overflowing with emails from companies offering deals and discounts for a variety of products.
Many of these will be genuine, like the newsletters you've subscribed to from brands you know, but the general rule of thumb online - as in life - is that if something seems too good to be true, the chances are that it probably is.
Despite what social media companies say about their vetting process, it's still worth checking that the ads you see on these sites are genuine. Facebook and Twitter will not be held responsible if you get caught out after clicking on one of these links. It's also worth checking the reputation score of those retailers via sites like Trustpilot.
Recently we saw ads for electric bikes at unbelievable prices under £100. Sure enough, on the website the bikes had no descriptions or specifications and we couldn't find a company address on the 'About us' page. These are all red flags which should alert you to a scam.
If the email is from a reputable site, simply navigate to the site yourself in a web browser and the deal should be available. Beware, criminals sometimes set up sites that look exactly the same as the one you’re expecting (at least for a page or two anyway) and it can be an easy mistake to log in, then get a nasty surprise when you don't receive the goods or your bank account is emptied.
Of course, you should be in no doubt that the pop-ups offering free tech are among the most blatant scam attempts out there, and should be avoided at all costs.
If you're shopping for technology and gadgets, be sure to browse our hand-picked best tech deals.
Tip 2: Use well-known websites and security software
For the reasons above, it's a good idea to stick to using websites for companies you know. The likes of Amazon, John Lewis, Currys PC World and Argos are ones we'd regularly recommend for buying tech, even if you might have to pay a few pounds extra.
In any case, it's worth installing antivirus software with a built-in website checker, which will give you the green light is a site is secure and safe. McAfee's WebAdvisor is a great free option.
On the subject of antivirus, you can see our round up of the best security software and antivirus programs here and the best antivirus deals here. Oftentimes, antivirus software will also protect mobile and tablet devices, which is particularly useful if you regularly shop on-the-go.
We suggest you follow the advice of Nominet's Head of Information Security Cath Golding when buying from smaller online retailers: “…rather than shopping via a link to a website through emails you receive, open a new window and visit the retailer through a reputable search engine instead. This could help you avoid falling victim to any emails scams by clicking on unscrupulous links to copycat pages.”
While it might seem unfair to up-and-coming retailers, your safest bet is to go for a site you know is reputable.
Tip 3: Check before you checkout
Jon Callas, CTO of security solutions firm Entrust, warns users not to let their guard down when they hit the online checkout. According to Callas, you need to look out for several things before entering your credit or debit card details into a website.
"If the site has an EV (extended validation) certificate the address bar will be green and the business name will be readily visible," he said. This means that the site has met a specific set of security guidelines which are independently verified, and that the site can be trusted.
Secure Sockets Layers (SSL) are used to ensure data is encrypted before being transmitted across the web and also indicate an organisation has been verified. Callas says potential purchasers should keep an eye out for https in the address bar rather than just the standard http, as this highlights a site uses SSL.
You should also look out for the padlock icon somewhere in or near the address bar, which is one of the main security features of basic SSL.
"Depending on what browser you use, it might be on the address bar or somewhere else like the title bar. But if you click on it, you will see security information about the site you're on," he said.
Furthermore, respectable organisations will display the site seal of their SSL certificate provider either on their home page or during the checkout process. He also recommends clicking on the site seal to ensure it's legitimate. You should also verify that the date and name of the organisation are consistent with the site you're visiting.
Those using public Wi-Fi, especially if it's unsecured, need to be extra careful as "you never know who could be listening", according to Callas.
"Double-check that there's SSL, and that the certification is good. Be extra, extra careful on a public computer; don't do anything financial or involving a password unless you must, as these are easily riddled with malware."
Tip 4: Log out after you finish shopping
Once you've finished shopping online, whether on mobile or through a desktop browser (we'd also advise using the latest version of your browser as well), be sure to sign out after checkout. Simply closing the window doesn't log you out and cybercriminals may be able to access the credit or bank card details stored in your account.
Tip 5: Check delivery times
One of the advantages of going to the high street is that you return with your presents under your arms. Online shopping saves the trip, but means you have to wait for delivery.
Of course, sites such as Amazon offer next day-delivery at a price (or as part of the Amazon Prime service) but you still have to be in to receive them, and delays can happen at Post Offices with the huge amount of mail that goes through the sorting offices, especially at Christmas time.
Always thoroughly check the availability of items before you click Buy, and remember that Amazon also lists products from other companies that might not be based in the UK, so make sure you check that you're buying from Amazon rather than a 'marketplace seller'. Or, make sure that the seller lists a suitable delivery time.
It's similar with eBay. Don't assume the company you're buying from is in the UK, even if their contact page says they are. Many China-based companies put 'UK' or 'London' as their location in order not to put off buyers, but check the delivery estimate and also the seller's recent feedback to see if they can be trusted to deliver your stuff quickly. You should also be suspicious if eBay seller
Tip 6: Click & Collect
An alternative to delivery is click & collect. Many big-name sites offer this now. For example, you can collect many eBay products from your local Argos store. Amazon has lockers in quite a few places now (check by your postcode here) so you can collect your items at a suitable time to you, and you can specify where they're delivered to.
Most supermarkets also let you order online and collect in store, but do watch out for any charges as it isn't always a free service.
Tip 7: Regularly check bank and credit statements
If you usually shop online, or have been doing so this holiday season, it's also a good idea to check in on your bank or credit card statement online. Scammers who've stolen your card number can charge you a small unnoticeable amount at first to test whether the payment goes through and then charge a larger sum later.
Tip 8: Check returns policies
Sometimes you'll need to return an item that doesn’t fit, or find that there's a problem with a present purchased for someone else. So before you buy, check the return period if you are buying a gift.
Many retailers extend this beyond the usual 30 days over Christmas, but don't assume they all do. Ideally, open the packaging and test out what you buy as soon as possible, rather than wait for Christmas day and find out it doesn't work.
If you need inspiration for gifts, look no further than our Christmas gift guide, which we'll be updating closer to the big day.