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Top 10 tips for Safe Internet Shopping

Over 5 billion pounds was spent on online shopping in 2004. The Internet was the fastest growing retail sector last year, attracting one in four shoppers. The growth rate for the online market was 27.4 per cent, six times better than for the traditional retail market. This looks set to rise as more and more people look for more convenient ways of shopping. It s easy to search for a product and then purchase it all at the click of a button and from the comfort of your home. You have a fun time shopping, browsing, reading and gathering information about products, and you don't have to take time out from your busy schedule to fight traffic, crowds and queues to buy the perfect gift for your recipient.

But how can you ensure you are shopping safely? Brad Bagherian, Managing Director, at Elaborations Ltd, a web design company in Amersham, has put together the following tips for safe surfing:

1. Take your time

Take your time when purchasing online since high pressure sales tactics, just like in the real world, often indicate possible frauds. Ensure the site is easy to use, designed well and looks professional. An amateur site will often look cluttered.

If you are in doubt, stop the transaction. You can stop the transaction anytime before pressing the Pay and / or Confirm button that sends your order off to the business.

2. Look for Contact Details

You may think all online shops will have their contact details on their website. You might be surprised to find that some do not provide their details, no email address and no phone number. This is a sure red flag. Reputable online shops will always provide concise contact information, this includes a physical address and a phone number. If you are suspicious trust your gut feelings. Do not buy online if you are unsure that the shop is real.

3. Consider all costs before purchasing

Shop around and compare prices before buying. When you calculate the cost of a product make sure that you take into account of the delivery charge and the VAT these are often not included in the overall price. Also make sure what you're buying is not subject to any import restrictions.

4. Check the Returns Policy

 Most reputable online shops offer strong guarantees and stand behind their products. Check the Returns Policy before you proceed to the checkout. Things you should take particular note of are; what happens if the goods are damaged or faulty, who should pay the postage costs for the return of an unwanted item and how many days you have to return an unwanted item. Online shopping surpasses the physical shops in convenience, but there is a disadvantage of being unable to physically touch the products, so the greater the refund policy period the better. If there is no refund policy, the best advice is to stay away.

Plus don't forget that under the Distance Selling Regulations, you do have a seven-day-cooling-off period in case you change your mind. For further information on Distance Selling Regulations see http://www.dti.gov.uk/ccp/topics1/ecomm.htm

5. Check Delivery Options

Find out when they will be delivering and whether you can choose the delivery date and time. Make sure the address you provide for delivery will have someone available who can sign for the package when it arrives.

Various delivery options may incur extra costs. For example, faster delivery, registered post and weekend delivery may cost extra. So if you don t want to be surprised when checking out, make sure you find out what their delivery terms are like.

6. Protect your Personal Information

Avoid giving out personal information that is not strictly necessary for a successful purchase.

Check the companies Privacy Policy (which is usually located at the bottom of the website) which tells you what they intend to do with your information. They should maintain your personal details in the strictest privacy and confidentiality according to the 1998 Data Protection Act.

7. Ensure the Transaction is Secure

Check whether the website complies with the industry s security standards (SSL) which help prevent fraud and protect you by encrypting the personal information you send over the Internet during the transaction. This encryption means that a hacker will not be able to steal your credit card and personal information. You must ensure the following two measures are in place before you complete any transaction on the Internet  Ensure a padlock image is present on the bottom right hand side of your browser  Ensure the web address begins with https

8. Pay by Credit Card

This will give you added protection because your credit card issuer becomes jointly responsible for the goods that you buy. So if there is a problem that the company won t resolve, the credit card company will assist you. While the problem is being investigated, you would not need to pay the credit card charge and if the company still doesn t deliver or they are a scam, you re in a much better position to claim your money back.

9. Keep a record of everything

Once you have made an online purchase, you will receive an email confirmation and an order reference number. Print these out and keep a note of any reference numbers provided during the transaction. It would also be useful to print out the details of the product or service you ordered. If there was a special offer on at the time, print out the web page with the offer on it. This will include vital information such as the web address, date and time it was printed. If you can not print out the information, then save the page in a folder on your PC for reference. These may be relevant if a dispute arises.

10. Know Your Rights

Online consumers have exactly the same rights as offline consumers. The goods should fit the product description and be as satisfactory as described online. If something goes wrong with your purchase, there are actions you can take with the shop, and your bank to fix the problem. For further information take a look at the Office of Fair Trading website.

As long as you have these tips in mind, you can shop on the Internet with your mind at ease. Most online shops and companies provide excellent value and discount prices because they do not have to cover the overheads of a physical business that will cost them insurance, employee pay, taxes and more. It s no surprise then that we are finding more and more businesses are taking their products and services to the web by setting up ecommerce sites.

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