Though a handful of front-runners kick-started the online shopping experience in the early nineties, it was Amazon.com that first brought it into the mainstream when it introduced a book-selling service in 1995. Things weren’t always plain sailing for companies looking to ply their trade on the internet.
Despite the unquestionable convenience of an online marketplace, many home-users were rather hesitant to ditch the physical interaction of a high-street store for a point-and-click interface, and one of the biggest reasons for the relatively slow uptake centred on security. Tales of identity theft and fraudulent transactions were widely publicised, and many believed that providing credit-card or bank account details to a virtual store could seriously compromise their personal security.
These days consumers are more than happy to part with sensitive information online, but is this really because shopping online is inherently safer than it used to be?
Well, the simple answer to this question is “yes”, and there are now a number of advanced security measures in place on reputable websites to help protect personal information. However, having a reputable security suite is still essential if you want peace of mind when searching around for the best deals.
Common dangers of shopping online
Perhaps the most common and most publicised danger is identity theft. This involves criminals getting hold of personal information that is then used to make purchases, open bank accounts or arrange credit cards. It can be achieved through infection with a Trojan horse, which sits on your computer and uses key-logging software to record keystrokes that may include passwords, usernames and credit card numbers before transmitting this data to third parties for malicious use.
Phishing is another well-reported concern, one that actually encourages you to give up personal information rather than retrieving it without your knowledge. Phishing attempts can take the form of e-mails that look like they come from a legitimate source – perhaps an online store or a bank – and frequently cite a problem with an account or order that needs to be rectified by sending personal data back to the source.
There are a range of specific scams that tend to fit into one of these categories and they provide good examples of the sorts of dangers that you may encounter:
Domain name renewal scams illustrate an attempted theft that relies on your not paying close attention to the small details. Scammers may ask you renew a domain name that is very similar to your own, or request a renewal of payment through a different provider to the one that was used to register.
Spam or junk mail relies on an online shopper’s inherent penchant for a bargain, offering free products, prizes or heavily discounted goods (often pharmaceuticals). In order to “receive” these goods you are often required to register with a site or service, which usually requests personal details, and may ask you to buy other products before you get the “free gift” or discount.
Overpayment scams are becoming increasingly well-known and usually rely on the good will of a seller to provide customer service. A product may be purchased (either by cheque, or an alleged online transfer) in which more is paid than was originally stated. The scammer will then request that the excess amount be refunded, usually in a hurry, so that the seller does not have time to realise that the cheque bounced or the online transaction didn’t go through.
This is often tied to fake order e-mail scams that alert an online seller that a product has been sold, or that money has been credited to an account by using a similar email confirmation template and sender address to the legitimate website.
What you can do
“Knowledge” is perhaps the best tool when it comes to avoiding problems with shopping and providing personal details online. It is important to pay attention – and wherever possible try to order from large, reputable stores that have a history of providing good customer service. The online marketplace being so competitive, it is important that these retailers maintain the highest standards for security and customer satisfaction. You can often read comments from others that have ordered from a store or online seller and these can be a useful guide. A good way to make sure that webpages requesting your personal details are secure is to check for the “https://” (rather than “http://”) at the beginning of the URL – the “s” tells you that the page is using an encrypted protocol to safeguard the information that is entered.
When it comes to phishing attempts, you should never send any personal information via email. If you have any doubt as to whether a request for personal information or order confirmation is legitimate, do not respond. Instead, log into the website that is allegedly making this request and check order or account status through the site itself, or phone the website customer service number and speak to an operator to confirm the request.
When vigilance isn’t enough
Even following these rules and being aware of the ways opportunists try to get their hands on your personal details may not be enough, and it’s all too easy to be complacent when considering the ease and convenience of buying and selling online. That’s why a reputable security suite that includes anti-phishing and identity-theft protection is still essential to guarantee peace of mind.
Safe browsing tools can also help by flagging websites that are known to contain malicious content and alerting you before you open the page.
Antivirus and anti malware software also helps you prevent malicious software from being inadvertently installed on your computer and recording the entry of your personal data into online forms when making a purchase. Nobody can resist a good bargain, but the old adage “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is…” is unfortunately prevalent with the sorts of low prices and deals.
An effective combination of knowledge, vigilance and the latest in internet security software standards is essential if you want the level of protection you deserve, and with these in place there’s no reason not to enjoy the benefits and convenience of the internet marketplace.