I love shopping online – in fact, 9 out of 10 things I buy arrive at my doorstep rather than needing to be lugged home on the train in a carrier bag!

Of course, I love ‘real’ shopping, where I can wander round the stores and see the products up-close before I buy, but then I have to factor in travel costs (and lunch costs if I spend the day out) and sometimes it just doesn’t seem worth it for a new pair of shoes!

And then there’s the excitement of receiving parcels that makes every week seem like Christmas…

On the other hand though, when you shop in store you take the item home right there and then, but if you buy online you have to wait for it to arrive… and what if I never does? Worse, what if the item doesn’t show and your bank account gets emptied?

It’s a rare thing to happen, but shopping online does carry risks. If you’re worried about fraud or just hassle if the item isn’t what you expected, I’ve put together a 9-step guide to ensuring that your purchase goes through smoothly and scam-free.

1. Find Contact Details
Yes, it’s an online retailer, but they still exist in ‘real life’ too! All companies are based somewhere, and should display a postal address and other means of contact (e.g. telephone or email address) on the site. Be sure to find this so that, should you have a problem, you know how you can get it touch to have it resolved.

No contact details = don’t purchase!

2. Research Their Reputation
Some online stores are just a branch of a brick-and-mortar retailer you already know and trust, such as buying your Tesco groceries over the Internet. Other companies you’ll never have heard of before so it pays to ‘Google’ them and find out a bit more.

Search for the company name plus words like ‘reviews’, ‘ratings’, and ‘feedback’ or even ‘scam’ and see what pops up.

3. Find Shipping Details
Postage costs and delivery times should be clearly visible before you finalise the purchase. When you get to the checkout, be sure to double check that the total cost is what you were expecting.

I’ve seen sites where shipping costs are added ‘during processing’ – in fact, I did buy something once where I ended up paying as much in shipping as I did for the product, which led to a very expensive purchase that I definitely regretted making!

4. Check The Returns Policy
In a shop you can try items on or test them out, but online all you have to go on is a picture and a short description, plus some reviews from other customers if you’re lucky. So what if the goods arrive and don’t work, don’t fit or you simply don’t like them?

Ensure that the site has a policy covering cancellations, returns and refunds which should include helpful information such as who is responsible for covering the postage costs should you decide to return something.

Money at hand
5. Read The Privacy Policy
A trustworthy company will display a clear privacy policy on their site explaining how they will handle the data you give them such as your name, email address and even credit card details.

If they don’t state that they will never pass or sell your details onto a third party, you could end up receiving tons of spam emails! There are companies who will pay a lot of money to get hold of the big email lists e-commerce retailers amass…

6. Check The Site Is Secure
It’s not just the company itself that you need to worry about receiving your data – ‘hackers’ can intercept sensitive data such as credit card details as it passes between you and the retailer.

To prevent this from happening, check that the data is being sent over a secure connection. When you get to the order page, check that the http:// part at the start of the webpage address has changed to https:// – remember, it’s ‘s’ for secure!

Depending on your own browser and settings, you may see a small padlock or (unbroken) key somewhere in the browser, or receive a pop-up notification that the page is secure, as other indicators a site is safe to use.
None of the above visible? Don’t enter any financial or personal details!

7. Don’t Store Details
Even if the privacy policy states the company won’t hand out your details, there’s always the chance that they could get stolen!

Remember when Sony was the victim of a data theft and millions of users had their personal details stolen? Yes, it even happens to the big companies.

It takes a minute to type in your address and card details each time you get to a checkout, and it’s worth it to know that you’re not leaving behind any data that may be stolen and used for fraud.

8. Pay By Credit Card or Paypal
Most people shop online with a debit card, but this offers next to no security against fraudulent transactions!

Most credit cards on the other hand come with a policy that protects you against fraudulent purchases, and if you have a Paypal account always use it where the option is available – their protection against items that are not received is fantastic, and your card details are never even passed onto the retailer!

9. Keep a Record
Nearly all online shops will send you an email confirmation when your order has been placed, including details such as the order number, item details and total price paid.

If not, be sure to take a screenshot of the order confirmation page on the site, as proof of your purchase – think of it as a virtual copy of the paper receipt you get in store.

Do you have any additional tips to add to my list? Or know of any fraudulent online sites people should avoid? Please leave a comment below!

About the author: Estelle Page blogs for IDPro, retailers of security equipment such as ID card printers and accessories.