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Online shopping is great but research properly and watch for the pitfalls.

With Argos giving up that cheery doorstop of a catalogue to concentrate attention on its online presence, we are reminded that shopping as we once knew it has changed forever.

The perpetually open aisles of the internet offer hundreds of thousands of products. With high definition imaging catching every detail, independent customer reviews, special offers on multiples, effortless card payment and often free delivery to your door, what could go wrong?

Well, given we have developed some e-commerce intelligence, the main danger on the internet is still you. It’s easy to be too quick on the draw, a tempting virtual deal delivering a retail disappointment.

Hit that inner ‘refresh’ button in your head, ensuring you’ve researched what you really want, from as reputable a source as possible, before impulsively prodding that ‘buy now’.

BEFORE YOU BUY:

¦ Protect yourself. Every time you go online, you are potentially infecting your computer with malignant spyware and viruses. Problems from the sheer nuisance of spam to identity theft can thrive if you don’t sufficiently protect sensitive information.

To be ‘internet ready’ to browse requires a firewall, plus an antivirus/antispyware program. Free software is available to download online.

¦ Get a pal. PayPal offers considerable protection against rogue traders under the Consumer Credit Act. Trusted e-cash systems can handle ongoing purchasing for you directly linked to your credit card and provide extra peace of mind.

¦ Buy at home. Don’t make purchases online using a public Wi-Fi connection. Hackers trawling for personal financial information can more easily crack Wi-Fi connections at hotspots such as coffee shops, airports and hotels.

¦ Research. Descriptions, images, zoom facilities, sample materials — you should use every element of the internet to inform yourself. Price comparison websites and expert review groups such as which www.which.co.uk, are a superb start for customer feedback and independent product testing.

¦ Buying blind? It’s all in the detail. Screen reproduction of colour will in all likelihood not perfectly represent your piece. Fabric swatches may be available to examine at home before ordering furnishings. Check those measurements for any furnishings as heavy items will be expensive to return.

¦ Who is the seller? Personal recommendations, full customer reviews and a few years in the business count for a lot. Expect a full terrestrial address and landline number. Having an ‘ie’ at the end of an address or an Irish sounding name does not mean you are buying from an Irish company. Never buy from a site without a secure payment page, a solid code of buyer information privacy, a clear returns policy, or one that finds you through a phishing email.

¦ Bidder beware. Ebay is not a supermarket and buying secondhand goods privately has its own set of snares. To find out more about your rights go to http:// pages.ebay.ie/safetycentre/ rights.html.

¦ Give your local shop a chance. Faced with a customer waving a web-based item, many shop-front retailers will do their best to match the deal.

THE DEAL:

¦ Secure payments. You should always be directed to a secure, encrypted page starting with the address ‘https’, rather than ‘http’, plus a padlock symbol. Double-click the padlock icon to reveal a digital certificate.

¦ Be guarded. Requests for the four security numbers on the back of your credit card is standard in a secure deal, but remain wary of giving out personal or financial information or being tagged onto a seller’s e-magazine or letters list. Your email address is a valuable catch for co-operating retail networks.

¦ Bad behaviour. Never send cash or wire money.

¦ The paper trail. When you commit to buy you enter into a legally binding contract and you should receive confirmation. Expect an email confirming your order immediately, print it out and keep it safe.

WHEN THINGS GO WRONG

¦ According to the EU Distance Selling rules, goods must be of satisfactory quality and match the description given on the website, free of any faults, durable, of good quality and fit for purpose. You cannot expect a refund or exchange for changing your mind. Goods bought during online auctions are not covered as distance selling.

¦ There is a seven day ‘cooling off’ period that includes this type of e-commerce for member states of the EU. If you do lose your head, there’s time to knock most transactions on the head with this no-quibble procedure. You do have to bear any return costs for items. Once returned you are entitled to a refund within 30 days. Certain goods, including anything personalised, are outside this clause.

¦ Buying with your credit card affords you more protection than paying with cash, as the credit card companies have their own procedures for dealing with both fraud and disputed transactions when the goods cost more than £100, and are jointly liable.

¦ If you find your buy is damaged in some way (excluding anything sold ‘as is’) inform the vendor immediately quoting your order number and outlining the problem. Your money should be reimbursed unless the item is replaced.

¦ Check your bank and credit card statements regularly and inform your bank immediately if you suspect any fraudulent activity.

If the seller is located in Ireland, and your credit card company have not resolved the issue, you may have recourse to the Small Claims Court for amounts under €2,000. See www.citizensinformation.ie.

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