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Save money: 4 safety checks to shop safer online

Last Updated on September 16, 2021 by Mr. FightToFIRE

There’s not much that is not for sale on the internet, but unfortunately, sometimes something goes wrong with that internet purchase. And with an ever-growing e-commerce market, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

EU E-commerce rises YoY with expected turnover of € 602 billion in 2018


The 4 checks I’m sharing with you are after I have had my fair share of misfortunate over the years, from a crappy second-hand mobile phone to peripherals that didn’t last as long as they are supposed to.

Luckily, none of it cost me thousands of euros, but it wasn’t fun. I have learned my lesson the hard way, and I’m now extra careful with buying online. Before I press that buy button, and like how I look out for the tricks brick and mortar stores apply during sales, I also apply my due diligence when buying online. It’s very annoying having to wait for your package because you ignored where your package is coming from or how long it’ll be underway.

Most problems within the EU can be considered general issues with delivery (34.5 %) of online purchases. Of these delivery issues, the most common one is the late delivery (25.6%), followed by damaged or wrong products (12.1 %) and even non-delivery of the product (6.6 %)[2].

The cause of these issues can vary a lot. Did the delivery not arrive due to logistical problems, or did the shop keep up with orders? In the latter case, you can find a solution by contacting your country’s European Consumer Center (ECC) (for Belgium, this is ECC Belgium). But if it’s due to fraudulent activity from webshops that in some cases don’t even exist, who can’t just be contacted and pressed to deliver.

While e-commerce issues in the EU see a downward trend, in some countries like my own, the trend is upward (+8.2% for 2014 – 2016). So it’s best to be proactive and prevent falling victim to such shops in the first place.

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Check 1: Who is behind the webshop?

The first check you can do for each webshop you are interested in: where is the shop physically located, meaning, what is its legal address? Websites that only give a ‘Gmail’-account -or worse, Hotmail- or postal box are best left alone. In the EU, every webshop is required to provide a physical address. If you don’t know anything about the webshop it’s best to just look up their address on Google Maps. If a construction contractor is located in a terraced house, something isn’t right. Flagrant spelling and grammar mistakes or layout issues on the site are another tell-tale sign the creator of the “webshop” isn’t up to any good.

Don’t trust anyone

You should also be careful with established names such as AliExpress, Amazon, and eBay. These are the three biggest names[1] with lots of products. However, these shops are also platforms on which third parties can sell their goods. The only way to see this is by paying attention to the fine print next to the product offer, e.g., “sold by XYZ”. If this is the case, always double check their terms and conditions, delivery times, return shipping costs and warranty legalities. It’s very likely that these will differ from those that Amazon uses and more often than not will offer less security.

Finally, don’t be fooled by domain names and their extensions. These say nothing about the physical location of a shop. A webshop ending in .nl can easily be located in China. Realize that getting goods from outside the EU will cost you additional shipping costs and customs tax.

Check 2: What’s the reputation of the online shop?

Do you wish to place an order with a shop you don’t have experience with? Be sure to first check the reputation of the seller. Just type in the name of the shop in Google, Bing, Yahoo or whatever browser you use, and add ‘complaints’ or ‘reviews’ after. This will show you the possible issues others faced before you when dealing with the shop. Important, search result and reliability aren’t correlated.

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Check 3: Is the product priced fairly and conform to what the market demands?

If the offer seems too good to be true, it usually is. This is the case for pretty much everything in life. Think about it, if it were that cheap and really good, others would have probably jumped on it and the shop should become well known very fast. Usually, amazing deals or discounts indicate that there is something wrong with the product. You should interpret “wrong” in the broadest sense. It can mean that it’ll be broken on arrival, but also that it’s a counterfeit product. Know that there are regular checks against counterfeit goods and that these goods will get disposed of. On top of that, you can be fined for (unwillingly) participating in an illegal transaction.

To come back to broken goods. It’s possible that these are priced correctly so that they don’t arouse suspicion. Always double check the pictures and look for hints of misleading information.

did you know?

Payments through card are the most widespread way to do non-cash payment in the EU. In 2012, the total value of transactions made by ‘plastic’ within SEPA amounted to € 3.5 trillion! In the same period, criminals acquired EUR 1.33 billion [rom payment card fraud. This represents € 0.38 lost to fraud for every € 1 000 of transactions.

Source: europol

Check 4: How can you pay?

Without paying you can’t get your product, so this final step is perhaps the most important one. Especially if you know that 12.8%[2] of cross-border purchases have issues because the shop didn’t offer the payment method of the consumers country (think Maestro here in Belgium).

That’s why it’s important you pay attention to how you can pay. while Maestro would be nice, online stores that offer credit card payment, have a leg-up compared to their non-credit card payment counterparts.
Why? Because in the case of fraud, non-delivery of your package, or If the merchant is bankrupt, you can still dispute a credit card payment and claim your money back through the card issuer. The alternative payment method Paypal also has a procedure for refunds.

With a debit card or wire transfer, you don’t have this luxury. Your bank won’t pay you back and you’ll have to direct your problems to the seller.

International money transfer services (like Western Union) are best avoided. These are the favorite payment methods of scammers.

Before you actually commit to your purchase, pay attention to the top left of the address bar and make sure you see a (green) lock icon and that the address starts with https, where the ‘s’ stands for secure. This will ensure you are paying in a secure manner.

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If you already do this, then great! Keep it up and don’t forget to stay vigilant.
If some of these points are new to you, I hope these four relatively simple checks can save you quite some headache and money.

You can find a lot of extra information and rights on the consumer portal of the European Union.

I'm a developer for a major financial institution in Belgium that is present in over 40 countries. I have over 8 years of working experience in the development of customer applications focussing on all aspects of banking. This helped me gain a deep understanding of the inner workings of a commercial bank. All of this experience in both banking and life culminates in this blog about personal finance and my fight towards FIRE.

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