Online Shopping Safety Tips

By Corbin HartwickUpdated on November 22, 2017

What is online shopping?

The Internet has been instrumental in re-shaping commerce, even on a personal level. Today, millions of people browse online marketplaces for products that can be shipped right to their door, or even downloaded straight onto their computer. And just as many people use these same marketplaces to make some quick money — or perhaps even a living — by exposing their products or other unwanted items to a global audience.

Is online shopping safe?

Sadly, there are also people who see shopping websites as a golden opportunity to swindle the unwary. Some may purposely misrepresent their products, or hide behinds strict policies that do not allow refunds or returns. Others may not be selling a product at all, and instead rob people blind by making fake payments for items, or luring a victim outside of a website and accepting payment for a item that never existed.

While scams such as these are relatively rare on most popular e-commerce websites today, they have been attempted in the past, and there's nothing to say that they won't be tried again in the future. That's why it's important to take safety precautions — like the five listed below — when using e-commerce websites, so that you can shop online with confidence.

5 tips on how to shop online safely

1. Look for the "HTTPS" protocol and other security signifiers.

As we mentioned in our "What is a URL" article, many websites today use the Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTPS) as opposed to the regular Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). At the very least, HTTPS is often used on web pages that require you to input sensitive information, such as when you log in with an email address and password, or when you enter information related to your identity, your home address, and/or your credit card or other finances. When you're shopping on an e-commerce website and go to check out, watch the address bar to see if web pages start using the HTTPS protocol.

In addition, you can check if your browser thinks that the website is secure by looking for a little lock icon in the address bar. Clicking on it should bring up the ability to see More Information about the website's Secure Socket Layer (SSL) Certificate. This is kind of like a digital ID card that tells you that the website or web page is genuine, and that — along with HTTPS — it will encrypt the sensitive information that you enter so that it will appear as gibberish to anyone who tries to steal it.

2. Read the ratings and reviews on items and sellers.

Before you buy an item, you should check not only to see whether or not other people have been happy with the item, but also how trustworthy other people think the actual person selling the item is. Many online marketplaces will not only allow people to rate and review specific items, but also rate and review the sellers themselves (based on speed of item delivery, accommodation of payment options, helpfulness in resolving a problem, etc.). Comparing these ratings and review can be a useful tool in weeding out potential scammers or phony products.

However, different people have different benchmarks when it comes to how well-rated and reviewed an item has to be before they buy it, or how well-rated and reviewed a seller has to be before they buy from them. We can only recommend that you shop around, compare and think carefully about what people say about a product or vendor, and then use your best judgment from there.

3. Before you buy an item, read its returns and refunds policy carefully.

Some online marketplaces have standard return and refund policies, but others leave these up to the individual sellers on the website. Unfortunately, some scammers may use the latter to their advantage by attempting to trap potential buyers with strict policies. For example, they may only offer a return or refund for a limited amount of time, or they may only allow an item to be replaced instead of refunded or exchanged. Some may not offer refunds or returns of any kind (though this is usually rare).

Not all people who have strict return/refund policies are scammers; they may have a legitimate reason, such as their products being expensive and/or time-consuming to make. However, it can definitely feel like you're getting scammed if you can't return or get a refund for an item because you didn't read the policies of the shopping website or the seller. That's why it's important to read these policies, so that you know what you're getting into before you buy.

4. If you don't feel safe using a credit card, explore alternative payment options.

One of the questions that we get most often here at Techboomers concerning shopping websites and other websites that require users to pay for their services is: is it safe to use my credit card on this website? For most popular websites like this, the answer is "yes", as they follow the security measures outlined in tip #1. However, if you're still a bit squeamish about entering your credit card details into every website where you have to pay for something, there are some websites that will allow you to pay for items and services in a manner other than entering your credit card information.

For example, many accept PayPal, a popular online transaction service used by people who do not want to input their credit card details into different e-commerce websites. There are other websites that will even allow you to make purchases entirely by using gift cards, so you can ask someone else who is comfortable with using their credit card online to buy them for you, and then pay them back. Then, you can purchase items just by entering your account (and perhaps your shipping) information, and not any financial information.

An example of a website that offers these kinds of payment options is online movie-watching website Netflix. To learn how to pay for Netflix subscriptions using PayPal, gift cards, or an iTunes account, see our How to Get Netflix without a Credit Card tutorial.

5. Never complete or accept a payment for an item outside of the website that it's listed on.

In our Advance-Fee Fraud article, we went over an example of why paying (or accepting payment) for an item outside of the e-commerce website where that item is listed is a bad idea. It is a very easy way to get scammed, not only because you've possibly lost the protection of a secure transaction environment (as was outlined in tip #1), but you've also likely lost the protection of having the e-commerce website receive a record of your transaction. This means that your financial information might be vulnerable to being stolen, and it may be difficult for the e-commerce website that you bought the item on to catch and take action against the scammer (since they don't have hard evidence of the person doing anything wrong).

Also of note is that paying (or accepting payment) for an item outside of the e-commerce website where that item is listed is often against that website's rules. This is because many e-commerce websites charge commission fees when items are bought or sold, and so completing transactions off-site is basically cheating them out of their money. For this reason, it might not be a bad idea to report anyone who tries to take a transaction outside of an e-commerce website, since if they're not an outright scammer, then at the very least they're not using the website properly.

Okay! Now you know what to look for when you're shopping online in order to know if a website is trusted and safe. You also know how to spot and avoid online shopping scammers and their tricks, and that there are websites with alternative payment options available if you don't want to use your credit card all the time.