Shop safely online

With the Aussie dollar so strong it's been a good time for a while now to go shopping on the net. However, shopping online can be a hazardous business. Here are some tips to playing it safe.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
5 min read

With the Aussie dollar so strong it's been a good time for a while now to go shopping on the net. However, shopping online can be a hazardous business. Here are some tips to playing it safe..

(Credit: Filomena Scalise/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Update your browser

Web browsers have built-in security features, but if you're not keeping your browser software up-to-date, you may not have the best protection.

Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer and Opera all have in-browser options to check for updates regularly. Apple software automatically checks for updates, once a week.

Update your anti-malware software

Spyware and adware are malicious programs that infect your computer and run in the background. They can monitor your usage and habits to then hit you with advertising, install software on your computer without permission and slow down your internet speed. The definitions of these malware types are being updated all the time, which means your anti-malware software needs to be updated, likewise.

You should be performing regular scans of your system anyway; it's a simple matter to check for definition updates before running a scan. This will maximise your protection from malicious code.

Our Security Starter Kit lists some of the best anti-spyware suites available.

Also, check out Zemana AntiLogger (AU$29.95), a software product that differs from the others, in that it's designed to protect people who do a lot of online shopping and banking. It works by stopping malware in real-time, which prevents things like keyloggers nabbing your sensitive details.

Check the links

Use a link scanner, such as AVG's Linkscanner (available online or to download), to vet websites before you visit them. After you enter the URL, the scanner will visit the website and examine it for suspicious activity. It will then give you a safety rating, which you can use to determine if, whether or not, you feel safe visiting that site.

Use a credit card

If you use a credit card to do your online shopping but do not receive your item, you can contact your bank for a chargeback — that is, a reversal on the charges and any interest they may have accrued. Bear in mind that you will have to try to resolve the issue with the vendor, first.

Certain credit cards also carry an additional, optional layer of protection. For Visa card holders, this is called Verified by Visa, and it comes in the form of a unique password for each transaction delivered via SMS. If the buyer can't enter the password, the transaction will be declined.

For Mastercard, the additional protection is called SecureCode. The user registers a password with their bank, which will need to be entered for each transaction in a separate browser window.

If you do not feel confident about using your credit card, Visa offers prepaid credit cards, which are available through Australia Post. You can choose to put the exact amount of money you need on to a prepaid card, which means that, in the unlikely event of your card details being hijacked, if you have already made the transaction, aspiring thieves will find no funds available.

If you use your normal credit card, make sure you check your monthly statement thoroughly for unauthorised charges.

Security check

There are a number of ways you can check if a website has a secure shopping page. When you get to the part of the checkout that asks for your credit card details, check the address bar. Where it usually reads "http", it should now read "https" to indicate that the page is secure and your information will be encrypted.

Most browsers (Safari is the notable exception) will also display a padlock. For Firefox, it's in the bottom right corner of the browser window. For Chrome, it's to the left of the address bar; Internet Explorer and Opera display the padlock on the right side of the address bar. You can click this padlock to view the website's encryption certificate.

Also, look for easily accessible contact details on the website. If the merchant doesn't list a phone number, send them an email. If they don't respond, don't shop there.

Keep your passwords private

This one ought to be a no-brainer. Do not share your passwords with anyone. Reputable websites will not ask for your passwords via email, so if you receive an email asking for your password, delete the email.

Also, set up a different password for each website. If you do not think you will remember them all, write them down and keep them somewhere safe, or get a password vault for your smartphone, such as mSecure (Android, AU$9.29) or 1Password Pro (iPhone, AU$15.99).

Policy check

Before you enter any personal information, make sure you check the vendor's privacy policy. Some vendors will sell or share your information; if you are unhappy about this, look for somewhere else to shop. Alternately, if the website has no privacy policy on its website, email and request one. If they can't or won't provide it, again — shop elsewhere.

It's also very important to check a vendor's return policy in an online environment. Since you can't see the item with your own eyes, you can't be sure that you will be getting what is advertised; and, with clothing, if it will fit well. If the vendor will not offer returns, you may be better off finding somewhere that does.

Finally, make sure you check the vendor's shipping policy. As well as laying out the charges, such as postage and handling (you should also check currency conversion rates), this will also let you know when to expect your item. This way, if it is late, you can contact the vendor within a reasonable time frame.

Pick priority

With this in mind, when it comes to choosing how your item will be shipped, the safest method is invariably the one that offers a tracking number, such as Registered Post. Most shopping websites will have a Registered Mail option. This is more expensive than regular postage, but it will be less of a headache for everyone involved if you can track the postage if the package goes astray. Customers have also been able to use tracking numbers to prove that untrustworthy vendors never even posted the item in the first place.

Keep a record

Print out transaction records and save any email communications with the seller, and keep them somewhere safe, such as a dedicated folder in your filing cabinet. Also, note down the vendor's web address and contact details. You may need to provide these to your bank if you have to file a chargeback.

Do your research

Shopping at a well-known department store online is safer than an individual vendor you have never heard of. Websites such as eBay (click on the star, next to the seller's name) and Etsy (in the shop owner's details, on the left-hand side) also allows customer feedback; if a website has this feature, make sure to check it out. A high number of disgruntled customers raises the chance that you will get the run-around; whereas, if a seller has a lot of happy customers, the transaction is much more likely to be smooth.

If a website doesn't have this feature, google the store name with another search term, such as "complaints". Every vendor will have complaints against them, but if they are relatively few, your shopping experience is more likely to be a pleasant one.