Show me the money: banking and retail online
It's April, it's New Financial Year time for a lot of businesses and tax offices, and that can only mean one thing – everyone’s going to start thinking about money. Offers of new ISAs are going to start hitting your inbox, new savings accounts will be launched, corporate budgets for the new year are starting...
And you're stuck in the middle, wondering about how much money you can save on the internet. Prices for goods and services are often cheaper but you've heard that there are scammers around.
You’re right to be cautious. There are organised criminals out there who will fleece anyone without mercy, and old advice like “if an email is spelled wrongly it won't be from your bank” is dating rapidly. Not that banks send out badly-spelled or punctuated communications, it's just that many of the scammers are quite literate too.
Nevertheless you can start protecting yourself by not clicking through to any financial website from a link in an email. Type the address into your browser's address bar so you know you’re going to a genuine site, and if that offer is still advertised on the bank's official website then fine, it was genuine, no harm done.
A bank will never ask you for your full password via email, by the way – so a mail looking as though it’s from your bank asking for that is highly likely to be a fake.
There are many companies on the web who'll also ask for credit card details and there are often good reasons for this. There are the shops, who quite legitimately want some sort of payment before they dispatch any goods. Inevitably there are also fake sites, some of which will look a lot like shops.
There are a few things to look for in your computer’s browser window when you’re about to spend money. First there should be a padlock at the bottom of the window somewhere if you’re using Internet Explorer, still the most popular means of looking at the web. Second, the address should change from an 'http' address in the bar to an 'https' address.
These are all reassuring signs. You might also have to go through a verification process with your bank details after putting your card details in – this is entirely reasonable and means the company from whom you’re buying is looking after your interests.
There are certain details that it's unwise to input, no matter how honest a site might appear. Unless you are buying alcohol or something else age-restricted, there should be no reason for a company to ask your date of birth. And yet people divulge it. Postal details are reasonable; sometimes a scammer will also ask for details like your mother's maiden name as an extra password.
Buy elsewhere. You are handing over enough information to allow someone to forge documents in your name. It's human to assume the best of people; a security company did an experiment a few years ago, offering people an Easter Egg for taking part in a survey – and during that survey they effectively took enough information from participants to put together a convincing passport application.
There can be a problem after an item has arrived. The majority of traders on the internet are of course honest – but they aren't all governed by the same rules. European businesses are legislated for by the Distance Selling Directive, which means (for example) that there must be a real-world contact address on the site. This isn’t obligatory everywhere else, and its absence will tell you either that you may not have the same rights as you would in dealing with a more local business, or if it's a UK company then they’re not aware of their obligations.
Whether purchased online or elsewhere, goods have to be fit for purpose and if not you may return them. You should also insist on the seller paying the return postage – although smaller sellers might drag their feet more than a little on this one.
If you’re in any doubt remember that the Citizens’ Advice Bureau will offer independent help, and an online search for your local trading standards body at the Council (or that of the seller) should also yield good results.
Find further tips on avoiding scam in the WebWise guide How do I shop safely with my credit card online?
Guy Clapperton is a journalist specialising in writing about technology as well as small business for several major broadsheets. He broadcasts occasionally on BBC Radio stations and reviews the newspapers on the BBC News Channel.