Friday, March 1, 2024

The red flags to look out for when shopping online

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Last year, 89% of the population bought goods online. In the EU, only the Netherlands and Denmark had a higher proportion of internet shoppers — 92% and 90% respectively.

Not all of us have great experiences when we shop online, however.

The best way to stay clear of pitfalls is to always buy from reputable retailers, preferably those you’ve dealt with before.

When shopping online, it can be hard to know who you’re buying from, so it’s important to do some research, check reviews and take a look at social media pages. Find out where the business is based. If you can’t find this information easily, approach with caution. If the business is based outside of the EU, try to find an EU alternative. You’ll have much stronger rights if things go wrong.

If you come across a product that is out of stock everywhere else, be careful. Again, do your research, look at online consumer forums and on social media for additional consumer reviews or feedback about the business before you buy. Don’t let price be the only deciding factor. A lower price doesn’t always mean a better deal; if it looks too good to be true, more often than not, it is.

Fake reviews are a big problem online, and nothing but five-star reviews is often a red flag. It’s important to keep in mind that products and services with authentic consumer reviews are more likely to have a mix of consumer feedback across the ratings scale. So, watch out for products or services with only positive reviews or exclusively five-star ratings.

Browse the website before you buy, and when you do, watch out for poor English, such as spelling and grammar mistakes, or language that doesn’t sound right. Just because a website has a .ie address does not mean it’s an Irish-registered business. You should also check that the website lists contact information, including a contact email address, phone number, and geographical address.

Reputable and legitimate companies will always list ways to get in touch with them, so if the website doesn’t have a ‘Contact Us’ page, it could well be fraudulent. Additionally, if the site does have a ‘Contact Us’ page but only offers a form to fill out, be wary!

Payment methods

Always pay securely, and consider using online payment services such as PayPal or a pre-paid credit card, so as to avoid potential scammers getting a hold of your bank account details. Pre-paid debit cards or credit cards provide an extra layer of protection as there is no direct withdrawal from your bank account. Never use wire or transfer services to pay for goods.

When you’re paying, look out for an ‘s’ after ‘http’ at the beginning of the url, and a padlock symbol in your browser’s taskbar which shows the website is secure. If it isn’t there, be very wary of proceeding any further. And keep good records. It’s important to have all of the details of your interactions with the trader if an issue arises.

Check the goods as soon as they arrive. If you’re buying children’s toys or electronics, be sure to look for the CE mark on the product, in the instruction manual, or on the packaging. The CE mark is essentially the manufacturer’s declaration that the product complies with EU safety regulations and standards. If there is no visible CE mark, it may be an indication that the goods do not meet the required safety standards and should not be used.

If you think you have been the victim of an online scam, report it to your local Garda Station. Bring copies of all emails, account details, screenshots of ads and so on with you when you report. In addition, if there’s an online reporting service on the website or forum which hosted the scam, use it to let them know what happened.

The Gardaí say that most internet users have encountered online scams in which attackers attempt to obtain personal information such as log-in and/or banking details. In addition, users may have received emails offering them the chance to share in a secret fortune or to claim a lottery win or tax refund.


You can invoke a ‘chargeback’ if your card is charged and you believe it should not have been. You have grounds for a chargeback if the transaction was not authorised by you, or was put through more than once, or if the supplier did not deliver the goods or services you paid for.

You should first contact the supplier and ask for a refund. If they won’t play ball, and you paid using a credit or debit card, your card provider — usually your bank — may agree to reverse the transaction.

In order to start a chargeback, you should contact your bank or credit card provider immediately. Give them details of the disputed transaction and request that they follow it up.

Depending on the debit or credit card scheme 

— i.e. Visa or MasterCard — there are different terms and conditions in relation to chargebacks. Most schemes offer full refunds but there can be specific timeframes, such as 120 or 180 days after the transaction takes place, or the agreed date of delivery.

If there is a transaction on your bank account or credit card statement that you don’t recognise, the first thing to do is contact your bank or credit card company, as this could be a fraudulent transaction. You can then seek the chargeback once the issue has been reported.

Recent investigations into known problems by EU authorities reveal that most consumer rights breaches in the digital sphere have to do with unfairness in all its forms. The European Consumer Centre in Dublin says that most recently, dark patterns have been a big problem.

These are basically

design features, placed on shopping websites to manipulate consumers into making a purchase or signing up for a service or subscription. They take many forms.

‘Price personalisation’ for example.
This is the practice of displaying different prices to different consumers based on their browsing history, location and other personal data. So one person gets one price, and another a totally different one.

Some online retailers use psychological tactics to manipulate consumers into making a purchase. These can include false scarcity, where a product is advertised as limited in quantity, and upselling, where a shopper is encouraged to buy a more expensive product or opt for add-ons to a base product or package.

If you run into problems while shopping online in the EU, get in touch with the European Consumer Centre Ireland for advice and assistance.

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