How to shop safe online

America may have its Black Friday but today is Mega Monday in the UK - the day on which Christmas shopping traditionally goes berserk. The first Monday in December is the day we take a look at the calendar, realise where we are and that we've ignored all the cries of exactly how many shopping days there are until Christmas.

Although many online shops will guarantee Christmas delivery if you order up until the 19th December, there are plenty that still skirt around the two week mark, particularly when ordering from the likes of Amazon and eBay. So, now is very much the time to get your credit cards out and cruise the gift guides if you haven't already worked out what it is you're going to get.

But before you do, or if indeed you're new to the world of online shopping, then make sure you follow the Pocket-lint guide to shopping safely online so that you get the gifts you're after and that you don't fall foul of the hackers and their scams

 

1) Scan your system

One of the major ways which you might get scammed is if you already happen to have some malicious code running on your machine. Keystroke logging malware sends out all the information that you type and some of it even offers a view of your screen to the hacker as you do it, if you're particularly unlucky. So, when you go shopping, it's possible to get all your personal and banking information recorded as you buy items. Very bad indeed.

So, the obvious thing to do is to run a full scan before you decide to do your browsing. Update your anti-virus software or install some if you don't happen to have any at all. The best suite out there at the moment is the latest version of Norton but if you'd rather not pay for protection, then Avast is currently the pick of the bunch.

 

2) Update your software

Even if your AV is up to date, you want to make sure you're system has as few exploitation issues in the first place as possible, so we cannot recommend updating your other software strongly enough. The obvious one is whichever browser you're using but update all your plug-ins and whatever PDF reader you use too. For those not quite in the know, "Help" at the top of your window and then "Search for Updates" is usually where you're heading.

 

3) Shop on the right OS

Most of the malware out there is aimed at exploiting Windows XP. It's a numbers game. More people use it than any other OS. This does not mean you shouldn't shop on an XP machine but if you happen to have another choice in the house - Mac, Vista, Windows 7, Linux - then it might be an idea to use one of those instead.

 

4) Public and work computers

Don't do your Christmas shopping, or any financial dealings, on public computers. You've got no idea who's been on them before you, what mistakes they've made and what malware might already be on them. Unscrupulous internet cafe owners could even have all sorts of monitoring techniques of their own in place.

Work computers, on the other hand, are a different kettle of bananas. If you happen to work at a large company, the kind of security they have in place is probably very good and might make it quite a safe place to shop. Do make sure that you trust them though, as there is a good chance that they monitor a great deal of your web traffic too.

 

5) Turn your security up

Go into your browser's options and turn the security level right up. It's also worth doing this on your OS security centre too. You'll be minimising the effect of picking up any threats as you go and you'll have all your mini bots on high alert for anything suspicious going on on your computer.

While you're at it, you shouldn't use Internet Explorer for shopping either. No browser is safe but IE is certainly the least so. Also, make sure to switch on all the anti-phishing and malware filters while you're there too.

 

6) Read before you buy

When you're on the page of the item you're going to purchase, make sure you've read all the details very carefully. If you're on an auction site, make sure you're bidding on what you think you're bidding on rather than just a picture of it or a manual. Read up on customer reviews of the item you're buying as well as the buyer, if you're on eBay or Amazon. Make sure they're both reputable.

Remember to check how much delivery will be as well as any other charges the vendor adds on when you get to paying for your shopping basket. What seems like a cheap deal can become more expensive than the same item in other online stores that you've seen.

Finally, don't forget to check whether the item is in stock. Some of the time you won't be able to make the purchase if it isn't but other times you can and can end up waiting weeks before the item is dispatched. Not good with Christmas just a few weeks away now.

 

7) Check the URL

Now that you've decided it's time to buy, you'll be taken to a transaction screen. One of the biggest online scams is site spoofing. If either a legitimate site has been compromised or if you have somemalware on your machine, then you may be taken to a page which looks exactly like the Amazon, Play.com or the checkout out of whatever shop you're visiting but it'll actually be justtricking you into giving your personal, bank and card details to a hacker.

One easy way to look out for this is to check the URL very carefully. It might appear to be the what you'd expect but check the spelling very carefully or whether it's a .org, .com, .co.uk or any of the other suffixes. Is this the right one for the normal site?

Also many secure sites now use https:// instead of http:// on the checkout pages. The s means that the details you enter will be scrambled and so impossible to extract by a third party. If you're on a big site and they're not using that system, then it might be a fake.

 

8) Look for the padlock

Another sign that the checkout you're using is secure is the padlock symbol that will appear either at the end of the address bar or on the bottom right of your window, depending on which browser you use. Again, if you're on a big site like PayPal or such and it's not there, then something's wrong.

 

9) Use Credit Card

If all fails an you still end up being defrauded, then in most of the cases in the UK, you're bank is entitled to refund you the money. This isn't always so, however, and the best way to avoid a possible issue is to shop on a credit card rather than with a debit card where the money leaves your account instantly. At least with a CC system, both yourself and your lender still have time to stop the payment if you later find out that you've been had.

 

10) Mastercard SecureCode & Visa Verify

If your card issuer hasn't automatically insisted on either of the Mastercard SecureCode or Visa Verify schemes, then make sure you do. These require you to enter three characters from a secret word before any payment is allowed through. Nowhere at all online will you have entered this word hold, so it's very difficult for anyone else to use your card details unless you're there with them.

Whatever you do, don't be put off doing your shopping online. Show a little web sense and you'll find it's actually very safe. There's a lot of scare stories out there. If you follow even half of the steps above, then you've no need to worry about any of them.