The most popular online scams are websites that purport to be "official" government sites or in some way linked to government. These sites look like they are providing a paid service, such as passport applications, when in fact they are simply fleecing those who use them.To help you stay safe and hang on to your cash, here’s my checklist for when you use a service online that you have never used before:
■ Be cautious and follow your instincts. If a website does not look right or feel right there is a good chance it is not genuine. If you’re dealing with a large corporation or government-backed agency they will have built their site properly.
■ Think before you pay. In many cases there is simply no need to part with cash. While you do have to pay for a passport or driving licence, you don’t have to pay an intermediary an extra fee – you’re just wasting your money. Sites offering to process the information for you aren’t breaking the law but you can do it all yourself.
■ Do your research. If you’ve never used a particular website before and don’t know its credentials, google its name before parting with cash. If it’s a scam someone else will have been caught out and is likely to have reported it in an online forum. Make basic security checks too – secure websites that ask for sensitive information or let you pay online, a padlock symbol or the letters “https” instead of “http” before the “www”. That means it’s encrypted, has security in place to protect your details and is probably genuine. It’s not a guarantee but your information is definitely not secure on sites without that security, which are highly likely to be fake. Encryption takes time and money to set up and sites must be approved. So fakes often do without it.
■ Check the small print and call the numbers shown on the website. A genuine site will have privacy policies, terms and conditions and contact details. Be wary of sites which offer no way of picking up the phone to ring someone, which you should do to make sure they are real. And if the phone numbers don’t look right, differing from the usual formats, they may not be genuine.
■ Use a credit card to pay. My top tip for buying online is to use a credit card, not a debit card. Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act means that if anything goes wrong and you lose your money, your credit-card company will repay you, even with fake websites. That law’s been around since 1974 but many people still don’t understand it. It was designed as an insurance policy so if you don’t get what you paid for or are a victim of fraud, your credit card company pays you back and they pursue the rogue operator.
■ Check the web address. It may look genuine at a glance but read it carefully. For instance there are many “Paypal” websites out there spelled with too many Ps. They are clearly not genuine but may appear so if you look too quickly. And although a website address ending in “.gov” used to be a guarantee, these days there some out there that may not be what they claim.
■ Website rankings. Fake websites are so advanced these days that those behind them know how to get around many checks. But real sites generally score highly on Google search rankings because they have been around for a long time and have built up links from other genuine sources. So if you’re paying for a service that you have found way down on page six of the search results, that should serve as a warning. However, being near the top of the rankings is not a guarantee because there are ways of getting on to page one without being established and credible – so you still have to exercise caution.
For more information on consumer mattesr visit Dean’s website.