A few helpful tips about avoiding online fraud may be just the ticket

Thousands of people every year are conned out of money or have their identities stolen. Rob Griffin offers advice on beating the tricksters

Where would we be without the internet? Booking a holiday, buying the latest gadgets, sorting out various financial transactions, and even ordering the weekly shopping can all be carried out in a matter of minutes via our computers.

However, these positives need to be weighed against the potential negatives as thousands of people are conned out of money or have their identities stolen every year, warns Tony Neate, managing director of Get Safe Online. “The ultimate aim for fraudsters is to get hold of your credit card and password details to access your funds themselves, or to dupe you into handing over money for goods and services that don’t exist,” he says.

That is why it is so important to do your homework before parting with either your cash or personal details, points out Sarah Kidner, editor of Which? Computing. “You should also keep a close watch on your bank account statement in order to spot anomalies,” she adds. “Another idea is to get a credit reference check as if someone has stolen your identity and is running up bills then this is likely to flag it up.”

Tickets to events

Touts charging sky-high prices for legitimate tickets – and the even more unscrupulous that peddle counterfeit versions – have been around for many years, but the internet has only served to magnify the problem.

Often scammers will purport to have a supply of tickets to sought-after events, such as high-profile music concerts or football matches that sold out long ago. However, the tickets never arrive and calls and emails go unanswered. Research by the Office of Fair Trading found one in 12 ticket buyers had been caught out by such dodgy websites, after being lured by desperation into gaining entry to an event at any cost.

The OFT’s “Just Tick It” campaign urges people to go through a checklist before buying tickets online. These points include: checking with the event organiser to find out when tickets are being released, and finding out what others are saying about the website. You must also see if you can contact the company behind the website – specifically by checking for a full geographic address and a working landline telephone number.

In addition, you need to see if they can provide ticket details, and ensure the face value of the tickets and location/area are clearly listed and consistent with the information detailed on the official website. Finally, it is worth finding out whether they provide refunds and what terms and conditions apply.

Booking holidays

For most people, the annual holiday is the one time in the year they can relax, so make sure you book via a legitimate website, warns Darren Cronian, the founder of the Travel Rants site (www.travel-rants.com)

“Anyone can create a fake website, sell hotel rooms and then purchase sponsored ads on Google and con consumers, so be cautious when booking hotels with unknown brands,” he says. “Do your research before paying out any money.”

Anyone from any country can purchase a .co.uk domain name, so it is worth checking out the web address on the DNS Stuff website (www.dnsstuff.com) as part of your research, he suggests. “It will also tell you when the domain name was registered, so if it was purchased within the past few months then be cautious.”

Separately, always make sure the company you book through is a member of a national scheme such as the Air Travel Organisers' Licensing (Atol) or the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta).

Buying goods

Not only do the same rights apply to buying from online retailers (namely that they must be as described and fit for the purpose intended), there is also an extra layer of protection in place because you will not have seen the item prior to purchase. In most cases, you have seven working days from the receipt of the goods in which to change your mind and get a full refund. Although you may be asked to cover reasonable costs of return carriage, these should have been made clear in the terms and conditions. To cancel your order, you must tell the seller in writing. If sending a letter, make sure it is by registered post.

Regardless of your general consumer rights, there are guidelines you should follow to help ensure your safety online – whether you are

simply surfing the internet or about to make a purchase, according to the consumer group Which?. Make sure you switch on the firewall on your computer and ensure you shop only with reputable retailers. Secure websites will also have addresses starting with the letters https, instead of the standard http, and you should also see a padlock symbol.

“We have seen a rise in fake websites recently that are made to look almost identical to the real thing, so people need to make sure it is definitely the official site,” says Sarah Kidner at Which? Computing. “Also, if an item usually costs £100 and is being offered for a knockdown price, the warning bells should really be going off.”

A prime example has been the recent surge in copycat websites selling fake versions of GHD hair straighteners. The problem is so bad the official company even has a tool on its website to check which outlets are genuine and which cannot be trusted.

What protection do you get from credit cards?

The good news is that you do get a certain amount of in-built cover when you make a purchase with a credit card – but there are certain restrictions. Some of this protection is provided for in law under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, and others on a voluntary basis by card companies themselves.

The part enshrined in law dictates that you are covered when you spend between £100 and £30,000 on a purchase with your credit card. It means your credit card company is jointly responsible – along with the supplier of the goods or services – for any breach of contract or misrepresentation. Effectively this gives you cover if the goods or services never arrive, turn out to be faulty or not as described, or are damaged – regardless of whether they are purchased online, by mail order, over the phone or in a store.

Also – and perhaps crucially – it also applies to purchases where only part of the payment was made by the credit card, just as long as the total cost is within that £100 to £30,000 range. For example, if you paid a £20 deposit for a £500 television on the credit card and the remainder on your debit card.

Identity theft

Not only can dodgy websites and emails lure you into parting with your cash without any intention of supplying the goods promised, they can also subsequently use the information you have supplied to take more money out of your account.

A prime example is “phishing”. Often it starts with an email being received that appears to be from your bank, asking you to update or confirm your details. You will then be directed to a website that looks virtually identical to your bank’s home page. The purpose is to trick you into revealing passwords which will then be used to commit financial crimes in your name or run up bills.

The bad news is that this crime is on the increase. In fact, instances of identity fraud have risen by almost 20 per cent in the first quarter of 2010 compared to the same period last year, according to the UK’s fraud prevention service, CIFAS.

A particular trend over the past 12 months has been a surge of such frauds that make use of the victim’s current address. “It makes the ‘impersonation’ seem more realistic and difficult to detect,” said Richard Hurley, a spokesman for CIFAS.

Also, never follow links directly from emails, always go to the official site instead.

Know your way around auction websites

Nowhere has the growth of e-commerce been more compelling than in auction websites. The giant in this area is eBay, on which a CD is sold every nine seconds and a car every two minutes.

The UK version of the site launched 11 years ago and has more than11 million unique visitors every month. It also has 17 million live listings at any one time, spread over 13,000 categories.

Given the size of the potential marketplace, it will come as little surprise that not everyone online will be whiter than white. They will not think twice about passing off fake items or refusing to post goods even though the money has been received. So how can you protect yourself? There are some rules, according to Dan Wilson, the author of the self-help book Make Serious Money On eBay UK. The greatest tool is the feedback which gives an insight into how the seller has behaved in the past, he says. Inflated postage costs, no photos or cash-only payments may indicate a dodgy seller.

“Look for a feedback score of 98 per cent or more,” he says. “If a seller has received good feedback for an item similar to the one you want to bid on, you can probably bid with confidence.”