Shop smart and safe online

It saves you time and it saves you money – you can bet if they have computers on the North Pole, even Santa Claus would do it.

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There are some extraordinary savings to be made by shopping online for Christmas presents this year – but make sure you are shopping safely.

Our shopping channel, which compares prices from numerous online retailers, has some incredible offers available including the Tom Tom Go 520 from as little as £166.82, the iPod Touch 3GB from £168.97 and the Xbox 360 Arcade from £119.98.

However, shopping online does carry risks with internet fraud estimated to have cost £500m in 2007. With UK shoppers expected to spend £13.6bn online in the run-up to Christmas that figure could rise unless shoppers do all they can to limit their exposure to online fraud. Here are our top 10 tips to help you shop safely:

Make sure you’re protected

Before you begin to shop on your PC or laptop, ensure it is protected with firewalls, anti-virus and anti-spyware software. If you don’t have protection there are plenty of free editions that can be downloaded from download.com such as AVG Anti-Virus and Super Anti Spyware. Check your settings for software that connects to the internet and apply the highest level of security available that will still give you functionality.

Keep software up to date

Ensure you have the latest software updates available from Windows update and other websites. They may not seem important, but they can prevent hackers and other attackers from taking advantage of known vulnerabilities.

Know who you’re buying from

You’re probably already familiar with most of the major online retailers but if you’re unsure about a seller you have never done business with then make sure you get phone numbers and addresses in case there is a problem. It’s worth searching for reviews to see if any other buyers have had issues with the seller.

Use security features thoroughly

Most online retailers will ask you to create a password and while it can be tempting to create something in a hurry, put some thought into the password and try to mix letters, numbers and symbols. Use a different password with every website you use.

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Buy safely

Under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, any goods purchased costing no less than £100 and no more than £30,000 are protected if you buy with a credit card. This means you are covered if a company collapses or if the goods are faulty or damaged.

Using a credit card is the safest way to buy online, especially as it is not linked to a bank account as a debit card is. Just make sure that if you’re planning a large purchase that you won’t be able to pay off in one go, you use a 0% purchase card such as the Marks & Spencer Credit Card which offers 0% for 10 months, after which the rate reverts to 15.9%, or the Halifax One Online Special which offers the same rates.The added bonus with the Halifax card is that it offers 0% for 10 months on balance transfers too – making it ideal for transfers and purchases, although it does include a 3% handling fee.

Ensure the website is secure when paying

Use safe payment options and on the payment page check that the web address says “https” instead of “http”. The “s” indicates that the site is secure. A padlock symbol should also appear in the browser window to show the payment process is protected.

Don’t leave a trail

While it’s best to keep a paper trail of your online transactions by printing off the details and saving them – including the product name, price, terms of sale and copies of any email exchange – don’t leave a trail on your computer. Don’t leave passwords on a PC to help you remember them next time around and don’t save your card details on the computer. Remember to read a company’s privacy policy too so you can see how the details you supply will be used.

Watch out for emails

Be on the lookout for emails requesting more information such as confirming a purchase or asking for account information. Call the merchant directly as legitimate businesses should not request this information through email.

Remember safety begins offline

Many internet fraudsters pick up details in the “real world” so make sure you are on the lookout. Always cover the display when entering a PIN in a store, never carry your PIN with you and be careful about the level of details you provide over the phone.

Check, check, check

Ensure you check your bank statements carefully and as soon as possible after making a purchase online.

Should you fall victim to internet fraud, check with the company first to see if there is any way the problem can be resolved. If not, then if you bought with a credit card you can ask the card company to investigate.

If you require further advice, contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau or visit the Consumer Direct website.

Disclaimer: Please note that any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing.

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