Whatever you want to buy, you can find it online by a quick search – someone is selling and you want it, and transacting online has never been easier. But, if the site is unknown to you personally, is it safe? Before you click the buy button there are some things you might want to think about first… tempting though it is when you know EXACTLY what you want, and there is it in front of you.

You may be surprised to learn its actually extremely easy to set up an online store, and that’s why so many exist, serving niche audiences around the world. But that means it’s easy for them to be set up for the wrong motives too, so hesitate for one brief moment before you hit that button.

So, you found the perfect pair of gold and puce shoelaces and now you are ready to purchase. The very first question you need to ask yourself is how did you get to this website? Were you browsing a search results page and it cropped up? Is it a reputable source for shoelaces? Can you find a review of their shoelace services? Or did you receive an email with a link? If you got it from an email, was it sent by your niece, the president of the gold shoelace club, or by the company selling the shoelaces?

These are all important questions that you probably ask yourself every day when you make a purchase at a store. There is no reason not to ask yourself the same thing on the internet. Just like a busy plaza, there are people on the internet ready to snag your financial information and use your loss as their gain. Luckily, just like being smart in the plaza, being smart on the internet can prevent most of these attacks.

Many scams looking to get your financial information come in through your email. These scams are calling “phishing” because they are fishing for your information. In most cases, you can spot by their offers to enlarge organs or pleas to assist a Nigerian prince, but occasionally, you’ll come across one with a bit more subtlety.

If you receive an email from a trusted friend or associate, then it is probably safe (unless they forwarded the email to you). If it’s a link from a reputable source like a known industry professional, it might be safe. If it is from the website hoping to receive your financial information, you should be raising a red flag and needs some more research.

Try looking at the email address itself. Though it may be sent by “StevenMD” in the name field, if the address itself is 2358309@nothing.net, you might want to think twice before following that link.

If you aren’t certain the website is legitimate, try navigating to it a different way. Run a search for the specific product or product number and see if the website comes up in the search results. If it comes up, chances are it is a legitimate website selling a legitimate product. If you want a little extra reassurance, or just don’t trust those shoelaces salesmen, try searching for the website name and the word “review.” In our deeply connected world, chances are someone else has had the need for gold and puce shoelaces, found this same website and left a review.

Which brings us to reviews. Reviews are one of the best ways to vet a website for legitimacy and make sure it is safe. If other users are regularly rating it four and five stars, you probably have a winner. If users are rating it exclusively five stars, you might need to double check the reviews and make sure they aren’t falsified before you trust the site.

Even after (or before) you’ve done all your research, there are a few basic precautions you can take in how you pay. In the shoelace plaza full of purse-snatchers, you’d only be carrying your credit card and some cash. The same should be true in the online marketplace.

online buy buttonYou shouldn’t be flashing around your banking details or giving every vendor your debit card. Instead use an intermediary like PayPal to keep your personal information to yourself.

A PayPal account is linked to your bank account, debit card or credit card (and has the high security standard to justify that) or can be “topped up” with a certain amount of money when you want to make a transaction. The vendor receives your email address and the money without every encountering your personal information. Setting up a PayPal account is fairly straight forward and the steps to doing it are available on their website.

If the shoelace vendor isn’t set up to use PayPal, then give them your credit card information. Most credit cards are equipped with consumer protections that will help you prevent and stop fraudulent charges and maybe get some of your money back. This isn’t as good as preventing a hacker from ever getting your information to begin with, but it is better than giving them direct access to your bank account.

If a vendor won’t accept either PayPal or a credit card, you should probably rethink how badly you need gold and puce shoelaces. Chances are, no matter how much you pay, you aren’t going to get those shoelaces from them.

To summarize, use PayPal (or a similar service) when you can, use your credit card if you have to and always check to make sure you are going through a legitimate seller. Basically, follow the same rules you’d follow in your favourite market and you’ll avoid most of the trouble online.

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