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Safer online shopping

Shopping has never been easier and more fun. In just a few clicks, we can jump from bazaars to boutiques to shopping malls across the continents. The Internet has become the world’s biggest marketplace and revolutionized our age-old activity of buying and selling things.

It’s easy to see why more and more people are switching on their computers instead of heading for the shops. Online shopping is hugely convenient and presents an unmatched range of products to choose from. Price comparison web sites offer instant analysis for bargain hunters, any time of the day. And instead of getting frustrated by queues and parking problems, we can chat online with other armchair consumers to share the best deals, product reviews and shopping tips.

Whether you are looking for Bolivian sports memorabilia or Tibetan prayer bells, using the web saves time and makes it simple to send gifts to family and friends. For many people, online auctions like eBay have become the preferred way of buying both new and used products.

But online shopping also has its risks. Browsing through the Internet’s never-ending supermarket may be entertaining virtual travel, but there is nothing ‘virtual’ about sending your credit card details across the Web. With billions of dollars exchanging hands on the Internet every day, online criminals make their money from unprotected or careless shoppers who don’t follow basic security measures.

Get ready for shopping action

It’s your money at stake, so it pays to make sure that your online shopping experience is as safe as possible. Going online without any safety awareness or security software is nowadays a bit like deliberately jumping into in shark-infested waters. Before spending any money, it’s essential to make sure that your computer, Internet connection and web browser are all as secure as possible.

F-Secure’s free Health Check pinpoints the possible security vulnerabilities on your PC and helps to make sure your system stays in good shape. If you do discover some problems and the constantly evolving world of Internet threats is not quite your area of expertise, then the first item in your shopping basket should be a security program for your computer. Software like F-Secure Internet Security 2009 keeps you protected and automatically updates your computer’s defences, wherever your online shopping expedition takes you.

Now focus for a moment on the Internet connection that brings the world’s marketplace to your computer screen. Remember that it’s always risky to send personal information over the unsecured wireless networks found in cafés, libraries, airports or other local Hotspots. Messages sent over unsecured networks can be intercepted by outsiders. So before whipping out the credit card to complete a purchase, make sure you are on a secured broadband connection at home or work, or log on to a secured wireless network that requires a user name and password.

Safe computer, safe connection, safe browser. The third preventive safety measure is to ensure that your Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, or whatever browser you are using to surf the net, is up to date. Browsers without the latest security updates are vulnerable to attack by hackers and other malware merchants trying get inside your computer. Clicking on the update bubbles from Microsoft, Mozilla or other browser vendors helps to keep the baddies out. It’s that simple.

Buy from reputable stores

Since you can’t physically touch the products or judge the trustworthiness of the salesperson, get into the habit of identifying the signs of a reputable web site. Just as you wouldn’t buy a Rolex watch for 20 euros from a shady character on the street corner, don’t take any chances with online vendors.

The first alarm bells should start ringing if you have never heard of the shop, it doesn’t have a postal address, and nobody answers when you call the customer service contact number. A quick web search should reveal if the company really exists and whether anyone else has experienced problems dealing with it.

Pop-up adverts and questionnaires jumping around the screen are another bad sign. Never write your personal details in the pop-ups that may appear when you are shopping around, unless you really want more spam e-mail in your inbox. If a shopping web site requires you to open an account and to log on with a password, make your passwords more secure by mixing upper case, lower case and special characters.

Always scrutinize the product descriptions and shipping costs before buying something. Read the small print and make sure you know how to follow the status of your order in case of a delay. Most importantly, don’t forget to check the company’s refund policy so that you’re not left wearing the wrong-sized shoes.

Making secure payments

There are also useful things to look out for when you have clicked on the ‘checkout’ button but have not yet typed in your credit card numbers or PayPal details. Many online shops display a closed padlock or unbroken key symbol and switch to a https:// address when you proceed to the checkout. Be reassured that https stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol over Secure Socket Layer. Spotting that padlock or https should therefore bring a warm glow of relief to the face of every online shopper. It means that the sensitive information you send during the checkout process is encrypted and can’t be read by others. The padlock should be located in the address bar or status bar in Internet Explorer, or the navigation tool bar in Firefox. If it appears on the page itself, you have ran into a fraudulent web site.

Paying by credit card is a good idea because you can usually get refunded if it has been wrongly charged by a shop or used fraudulently by someone else. Keep a sharp eye on your credit card statements and immediately contact your bank if unauthorized payments have been made on your card. Print out the e-mail order confirmations and receipts for your purchases. If you do have problems with a shop, remember that normal consumer rights also apply on the products that you buy on the Internet.

Safe habits save money

Never, ever, buy anything advertised in a spam message. Junk mail offers that seem too good to be true are usually exactly that. They are scams designed to steal your personal details, to infect your computer with nasty stuff like spyware, and to part you from your money. Clicking on attachments or links in spam messages is simply asking for trouble. Also watch out for bogus messages asking you to verify your eBay, PayPal or online banking details. Reputable companies will never do that, so delete all such requests.

The key to avoiding shopping disappointments on the Web is to follow your common sense, backed up by up-to-date security software. If you have any doubts about a web site, then spend your money elsewhere. With so many retailers at your fingertips who are prepared to make online shopping safe and enjoyable, it’s really not worth taking any risks.