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Financial planning tips

November 22, 2017

5 easy tips for safe online shopping

Buying online can be a holiday lifesaver, but it’s not without risk. Here’s how to make sure you’re getting the straight goods.

When it comes to convenience, online shopping is tough to beat: With a few clicks, you can dodge the mall crowds and have your purchase sent straight to your door.

And Canadians are taking advantage: According to a report from electronic marketing specialists eMarketer, we’ll spend $38.74 billion online in 2017, up nearly 14% from 2016. But that convenience comes with hazards, from knockoff products to official-looking emails aiming at tricking you into revealing sensitive personal data. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of simple ways to reduce your risk. Here are 5:

1. “The online world is the real world.”

That’s the mantra of Inspector Robyn MacEachern of the Ontario Provincial Police Community Safety Services division.

“People are often vigilant when they’re in retail stores, but when we’re online, and often in the safety of our home, our ‘spidey senses’ can be reduced,” she says.

The solution: Hold websites to the same standard you would a bricks-and-mortar store. “Think about things you’d ask if you were in a lineup at a cash register,” says MacEachern. “Is there a clear return policy, for example, or a person to contact if there’s a problem with the product? Are there clear terms of use? These things should be easy to find [on the vendor’s site].”

2. View all sites critically, starting with the address

Always take time to assess whether a website is secure the first time you visit it. MacEachern advises starting at the top of the page, with the site’s address, or URL.

“It’s important to remember that when you search for a store and click [on a search result], the first thing you should always do is check the address to make sure it matches where you wanted to go,” she says. “You can inadvertently wind up in a different spot; this acts as a secondary check-in.”

The URL should also start with “https.” That “s” on the end stands for “secure” and means information exchanged between your browser and the site is encrypted to reduce the chance of your personal information getting into the wrong hands.

3. “If it sounds too good to be true…”

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission flags a common scam that’s trapping people Down Under as well as in Canada.  It involves a convincing-looking email making a tantalizing offer – say, a free gift card from a popular retailer in exchange for completing a survey. But clicking the link could infect your computer with a virus or compromise your files.

Another potential outcome: Once you’re finished the survey, you’re sent to what looks like a corporate website (but isn’t) and prompted to enter personal info.

MacEachern has a few tips for beating scams like these, including watching for giveaways like spelling errors or an over-the-top sense of urgency.

“Be suspicious first,” she says. “Check with the company making the offer. Is it on their main website? Are they aware of it? With a little investigation, you can quickly get to the bottom of whether it’s real or not.”

4. Be careful with buy/sell sites

Classified sites like Kijiji.ca have disrupted the traditional yard sale, and social media has gotten in on the act, too: According to October 2016 figures from Facebook, more than 450 million people around the world buy and sell items through the site monthly.

These services are a boon if you want to declutter or find bargains on second-hand goods. But here, too, vigilance is key. “Let’s say I say to someone, ‘Yes, I want to buy something from you,’ and the person asks when I can pick it up,” says MacEachern. “Online, few of us would think twice about saying something like, ‘I’m going to be out of town for the next week, so would Monday be okay?’

“It’s easy for someone to piece together your different [online] profiles and find out where you live, who your friends are,” she adds. 

In response, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) created Project Safe Trade, which lets people exchange goods in OPP detachment parking lots. If there’s no safe-trade zone near where you live, MacEachern suggests meeting where other people are present or taking someone else with you.

5. If you spot online fraud, report it

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, an agency of the federal government, received 20,000 reports of online scams in 2016, representing some $40 million in losses.

If that number sounds low to you, it’s because it is: The centre estimates that just 5% of fraud gets reported, making it hard for police to detect new scams and warn the public.

“Often [the police] may not know the depth and breadth of fraud because people don’t report it. They may say, ‘I didn’t lose that much. It’s really not worth it,’” says MacEachern. “But it’s really important to make that report.”

You can report fraud through the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre’s website or by phone at 1-888-495-8501.

Finally, don’t let these risks keep you offline: “It’s not that people should turn their computers off,” says MacEachern. “Just apply some of these safety skills and you can safely take advantage of all the online world has to offer.”

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