The internet makes finding the cheapest prices for anything easy—but you may pay for these online purchases in a different way if you're not careful. Identity theft hit an all-time high in 2016, with a reported 15.4 million consumers affected. That means even people who shop online all the time aren't immune to scams.
You may have your own strategies for avoiding online fraud, like checking for trust seals on websites. Unfortunately, it isn't difficult for scammers to copy symbols like the Verisign logo and the PayPal Verified certificate. And before someone catches on to that, you might already be a victim. That's why it's important to check a few things and review some third-party sources when it feels like a website or email offer isn't on the level.
Play It Safe
The easiest way to avoid scams is shopping from well known, trusted sources like Amazon and eBay—and putting their URLs directly in your browser to do so. Companies like these have measures in place to protect shoppers against fraud. You can easily dispute a charge if you never receive your item, and the retailer will typically cover the expenses if the seller doesn't.
Sometimes you can't find what you want through one of the big, online retailers. Or another site may simply offer a much better deal. In these cases, here are a few things to check for before entering your payment info:
- Secure signs. While trust seals can be copied (click on them to help check their accuracy), you can find a few additional signs of s secure website in its web address. Specifically, look for a "lock" icon to the left of a URL, as well as an "https" URL (instead of "http") and that the address bar is green.
- Phone numbers. Does the site list a phone number? If so, give them a call to ask about their return policy. A lot of scam companies either won't list a number, answer the phone, or happily discuss details about their products or policies with you.
- Independent research. Google the company's name to see if they're mentioned anywhere else online. If you can't find much information (or find a lot of complaints), it's probably a scam.
Like the old saying goes: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. With advances in software and computer literacy, anyone can make a pretty convincing e-commerce website, banner ad, or promotional email. Luckily, there are a lot of warning signs you can look for.
The best way for scammers to take your money is asking you to wire it to them or make some other kind of cash payment. Avoid this type of payment at all costs. Instead, try to use credit cards or the credit function of your debit card. Credit cards have benefits that debit cards don't. For instance, they make it easier for you to dispute charges, and they also have fraud protection programs in place for when a scammer steals your card number.
In addition, pay special attention to the following when shopping online to avoid scams:
- Unsolicited emails. If you receive an email you weren't expecting from a company you've never heard of, just delete it.
- Contests and pressuring language. Legitimate companies will always give you all the details about their products upfront; they won't try to rush you into a decision.
- Requests for personal information. You should never give out things like your Social Security number or passwords unless it's through a secure federal form or something of that caliber.
- Any and all downloads for anything ever. Don't be afraid to download a coupon or something—just triple-check the URL behind it to know what exactly you're downloading and from where you're getting it.
- Claims that you have a computer virus. These advertisements claim they'll fix your computer, and then they infect it instead.
In Case Of Emergency
Knowing the tips above can help prevent fraud, but you should still review your credit card and bank statements each month. If you notice any irregularities—even small ones—contact your financial institution immediately to dispute the charges and/or freeze your accounts. It's a good idea to check your credit report regularly for fraud as well.
If you believe you've been a victim of identity theft or online fraud, contact the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National White Collar Crime Center (NC3). They have information about different kinds of fraud as well as forms to help you file a complaint.