Buying safely online

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  • | by Maxine Frances

Most of us know what to do with emails from hysterical Nigerian royalty asking for our cash, or offering us a fortune for working from home, but we're not always as clued-up when shopping or selling goods online. Whether you're a buyer or a seller, there are a number of ways to avoid being duped.

Where possible, buy and sell only within the UK

It is much more difficult and time-consuming to take action against foreign-based individuals or retailers. UK businesses should have a UK-registered office, telephone number and VAT registration number. You can check these details through Companies House.

Avoid buying high-value goods from private sellers

The surest way of getting what you pay for is to stick to trusted online retailers when buying expensive, sought-after goods. is a directory listing over 4,000 personally-vetted, UK-based online shops by category.

Don't use money-wire and escrow services

Never deal with a seller who asks for payment via a money-wire service such as Western Union or MoneyGram. These are not designed for use between strangers, and are easy to defraud. So-called 'escrow' services (where money is held in a password-protected account until goods are received before being released to the seller) may appear safe, but are often set up by scammers using fraudulent websites.

Tony Gilmore thought he'd snared a bargain when he treated himself to a state-of-the-art Bose home stereo system on eBay, but was horrified when the escrow system his US-based seller had recommended 'broke', leaving him £3,000 out of pocket, with no way of contacting the seller. “I was left with a distinct feeling of stupidity that I'd been so gullible,” he says. “It was an expensive lesson and cost me the best part of an insurance policy payout which had taken 50 years to accumulate.”

Don't be fooled by a seller's web presence

Always do your homework on sellers, but don't think having a website or online profile makes them legitimate. 'Sarah', an author who doesn't want to be named for fear of attacks, was scammed two years ago when she bought concert tickets via Gumtree. Although she was suspicious at first when the seller asked her to wire money, she felt reassured when she saw he had a Facebook page with real friends attached. “I thought nobody who would be that easy to trace could rip me off,” she explains.

She later turned detective and found she had been targeted by an organised gang known as the Ainsworth scammers, who sell high-value goods on sites such as Gumtree and AVForums using forged identities. They have also set up fake business websites using free web-hosting services, claiming affiliation with Royal Mail and the Carphone Warehouse. Bogus discount ticket websites are similarly common, often appearing low down in search listings when you type “tickets to” followed by the name of a show or sporting event. To ensure your tickets are genuine, always buy from members of STAR (Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers).

Be wary of excuses, and cross-check them with other sellers

Fraudulent buyers and sellers usually make excuses to cover themselves. Popular tricks include men posing as females to appear more genuine, pretending to be deaf to avoid talking on the phone, and claiming to offer collection but later saying they are in a different place from the item's originally-advertised location. DJ Louise Brailey bought a pair of turntables on eBay and received a note from the seller saying she would send them but “just needed to check how”. When Louise enquired several weeks later, the seller claimed the decks had been burned in a fire. After checking with winning bidders on the seller's other recent auctions she found they had been spun similar stories, and teamed up with them to force eBay to take action.

Use PayPal for transactions wherever possible

PayPal is an online payment system allowing users to pay for goods and services securely online by card or bank transfer. PayPal's organised anti-fraud protection system monitors and protects transactions made through the site. All sellers who send or receive large sums of money are subject to identity checks, and PayPal's technology will verify that you are using a web browser with the most up-to-date security. They also offer buyer and seller protection for eBay purchases made using PayPal. After her seller was found to be a fraud, Louise Brailey was quickly able to recover her money through PayPal's protection scheme, and even received extra through PayPal insurance.

Use an additional phone number

If you can't meet a buyer or seller in person and don't want to give out your personal number, is a free additional-number service, allowing you to map your existing landline or mobile to an 070 number, which you can later disconnect if a buyer or seller behaves dubiously.