It seems that these days, if you can imagine it, you can buy it online – but should you? Martin Cocker of NetSafe takes a look at what you need to know to keep safe when shopping online.
Online shopping can give you access to a wider range of items, at lower cost, and with less stress than shopping at traditional stores. But there is also the potential for huge disappointment – and fraud. Avoiding post-purchase disappointment and having your bank accounts emptied isn’t impossible, as long as you understand a few things about shopping online.
It is important to think of a Web site as both connecting and separating you from the organisation to which it belongs. A retail store has staff, stock, and fittings that you can see. These things are all cues as to the quality of the business. A Web site is not.
If you take away only one tip, this should be it: the quality of a Web site is not an accurate indication of the quality of a business. That visually stunning and easy-to-use Web site might be an accurate reflection of the business behind it. Alternatively, it might mask a business that has no capability to meet your expectations. The worst-case scenario is that it might simply belong to criminals with decent Web programming skills. The cliché “don’t judge a book by its cover” was never more apt.
Many traditional retail businesses have established online shops enabling you to access their products and services without the need to find a car park. Although it is not always the case, companies that run professional retail stores will typically run professional online stores.
Other businesses have never had a car park. There are a growing number of online only retailers that have never had, and never will have, a physical shop. Don’t hold that against them. There is no reason why an online-only business can’t provide an as good or better shopping experience than a business that also has physical stores. However, with no physical store to go storming into when something goes awry, it is even more important to pay attention to the other indicators of business capability.
It is safest to shop where others shop. If your friends have had a positive experience with an online store, that’s a pretty good indication that you’ll also have a positive experience with that store. In the event that you can’t find friends with direct experience, you can use online ratings as an indication of quality. There are a number of sites (including Google and Yahoo) providing facilities to search for shopping sites. These searches will often be accompanied by customer satisfaction ratings and reviews by other shoppers.
The Internet works best when the community takes ownership of safety and security, so it is important that you contribute to this process. Take a few seconds to provide a rating or comment on your experience with a business – good or bad.
Look for the padlock?
The Web normally operates in a very open manner, which is great for everyday browsing but isn’t appropriate for financial transactions. When it comes time to make a purchase, the Web shop must be secure. The technical term for this secure mode is ‘Secure Socket Layer (SSL)’. When a Web site is operating under SSL security, a padlock icon will appear on the browser toolbar and the normal http prefix on the web URL (address) will be replaced by https (the s is for secure). If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, see what happens when you log on to your bank’s Web site.
Modern Web browsers work pretty hard to protect you. They won’t stop you going somewhere if you insist, but if your browser is reporting a Web site as unsafe, it is best to move on – especially when you’re making financial transactions.
The most common payment accepted by online stores is credit cards. You can use debit cards that work in a similar way to credit cards, but without the credit. Some banks also offer prepaid cards that can be used like a credit card. Prepaid cards reduce risk online because your financial exposure is limited to the value of the card. If your card details get stolen, the criminals can access your remaining credit on your credit card or the money in your accounts via a debit card.
Credit cards typically offer protection against fraud. Check the terms and conditions of your credit cards. On the subject of checking, check your bank account regularly for suspicious activity. Online banking provides convenient access to your financial data, so you don’t need to wait for a monthly statement in the post. If you have concerns, contact the bank or card company immediately.
What you need to know?
The same laws that govern the relationship between a reseller and a consumer in a physical shop govern the relationship between consumers and resellers online. Remember, our laws only apply to businesses operating in New Zealand. If an online store is based in another country, the laws of that country will apply.
Regardless of the location of the business, there are some key pieces of information to look for on an online shop.
• Return Policies: These are very important with online shopping sites. It is possible for a product to be misrepresented through no fault of the seller. For example, different computer screens may show colours differently. How will the seller handle the return? Is there a standard fee? Who covers freight costs?
• Terms and Conditions: Most shoppers will quickly click ‘Agree’ when the terms and conditions page appears, but it can contain a lot of important information. Often these are the details you might have previously discussed with a shop assistant and could be critical to your decision-making about where to purchase items from.
• Privacy Statements: Your personal details and shopping habits are valuable marketing data. The privacy statement should expressly tell you what they do with that data.
There is a movement amongst Web designers to restrict requests for information from users, but you will still find many Web sites that give you the option of providing a lot of peripheral data about yourself. Companies that force people to answer those peripheral questions annoy potential customers and won’t last long. This information is often gathered to provide a better online experience, customising products and services offered to you. There are better, smarter analyses that companies can use to create that experience.
Information technologies impact on our ability to maintain privacy, and some people create a separate ‘identity’ for their online shopping. This might include using a separate credit card and email address for shopping online. That’s fine, but providing false information is ill advised. Purchasing items enters you into a legal agreement with the seller and deliberate acts of deception will weaken your position if you wish to exercise your rights under the law. If you don’t feel comfortable providing your personal details to an online store, shop somewhere else.
Some shops let you create a username and password. Be sure to choose a secure password – see September’s NetGuide (page 36) for more about this.
On the Web, malicious sites are everywhere. Some of these sites are deliberately set up as traps from the start, but some of them are Web sites that have been hacked and then had malicious software installed on them. This means that a legitimate Web site that you may have visited many times in the past might try to install a virus or spyware on your PC next time you visit it. That will put a damper on most people’s day.
Defending yourself against those sorts of attacks isn’t too difficult. Make sure you have security software installed, an active firewall, and keep all your software up to date. If your computer has viruses or spyware on it, you shouldn’t be using it for trading until it is clean.
But that’s a column for another day.