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Five tips for shopping safely online during the coronavirus lockdown

How to spot fake reviews, find good deals and get extra protection when you shop online

Five tips for shopping safely online during the coronavirus lockdown

With high street stores shut and households across the UK self-isolating, many of us will be going online to do our shopping over the next few weeks.

If you’re new to using online marketplaces or retailers, there’s a few things to look out for to make sure you’re shopping safely and getting a good deal.

Before you make your next purchase it’s important to consider how urgently you need it. You should to be aware that many online retailers are prioritising more essential items, and this can slow delivery times for other orders.

Be mindful that anything you order will require key workers – from warehouse staff to delivery drivers – to get your shopping to you.

Take a look at our top five tips for ensuring a smooth online shopping experience:

  1. Shop around for a good deal
  2. Watch out for fake reviews
  3. Get extra protection when you pay
  4. Be wary of unsafe and counterfeit products
  5. Check the delivery and returns policy

You can keep up to date on our latest advice on the coronavirus outbreak over on our coronavirus advice hub.

1. Shop around for a good deal

Online shopping can be a great way to find a bargain if you shop around for the right deal.

However, Which? has uncovered a number of unscrupulous tactics used by online sellers and retailers over the years.

Don’t be duped into spending more than you should – read our advice on finding a good deal.

How to compare prices

Don’t just accept the first price you see online.

It’s likely that different sites will offer different prices and you might well be able to find a cheaper deal elsewhere.

Once you’ve decided which product you want to buy, take a look on a few other sites to make sure you’re getting the best price possible. Make sure you also factor in the cost of shipping.

Four dodgy practices to look out for

  1. Price gouging Which? has uncovered significant price hikes on everyday products being sold online. Our investigation found overpricing of household items, including cleaning products, thermometers, baby formula and tampons, on eBay and Amazon.
    Although marketplaces have said they’re taking action against price surging, it’s still worth keeping an eye out for particularly high prices when shopping.
  2. Pressure selling Some sites will also use pressure selling tactics to try and push you into making a purchase, such as: ‘40 viewing this product right now’ or ‘In high demand!’. Don’t feel rushed into making a purchase. Take a minute to ask yourself whether the price is reasonable and whether you could find it cheaper elsewhere.
  3. Extended warranties If you’re buying an appliance or tech product, the retailer may try to add on an extended warranty or insurance policy. Remember that you can always opt out of add-on services – you’re not obliged to sign up for any additional insurance or set-up schemes.
  4. Premium services Others might try and entice you into a free trial for a premium service. If you do decide to sign up for one, remember that it’s often your responsibility to cancel when the trial period is over if you decide it isn’t for you. If you forget to cancel, you may be charged full price for the following period.

Make sure you check exactly what you’re paying for before clicking the purchase button, and if you have signed up to a free trial, put down a reminder to review whether you want to keep it when the trial period’s over.

2. Watch out for fake reviews

It’s a good idea to read reviewsof products before buying them, but be aware that some reviews aren’t always what they seem.

Fake online reviews appear to be from a genuine customer, but are actually posted by users who have been incentivised to write positive things about a product or business.

This could lead to you buying something that has scores of five-star ratings but is actually a pretty substandard product.

So, how can you ensure the reviews you’re reading are genuine?

  • Read the comments  If the comments seem too good to be true, they probably are. After all, how many people are really likely to describe a new hoover as ‘perfect’ or ‘life-changing’ Hyperbolic language can be a giveaway that the reviews aren’t genuine, as can reviews written all in capitals, with odd formatting or no punctuation at all.
  • Flood of five-star reviews Another tell-tale sign is if a product has received hundreds, or even thousands, of five-star reviews in a short space of time, or if a product has significantly more reviews than other products in the search results.
  • Negative reviews can be eye-opening. If a product receives consistent criticism (about its battery life or the brand’s customer service, for example), it could be a sign that it isn’t as good as its five-star reviews claim. If a seller gets a bad review followed by a flurry of positive reviews, it’s possible that it’s trying to bury the bad review to bring up its average score.
  • Is it a verified review? Verified reviews are those that the marketplace can confirm were bought through its site. They will normally be labelled with ‘verified purchase’ or something similar. Non-verified reviews mean the marketplace can’t confirm where the reviewer bought the product or how much they paid for it.

But be wary of Amazon Choice. Our exclusive investigation found that the Amazon’s Choice badge recommends potentially poor-quality products that have been artificially boosted by fake reviews.

If you’re shopping on Amazon, don’t choose a product on Amazon’s recommendation alone. Make sure you read other reviews and do your research beforehand.

If you do come across any suspicious reviews, you can tell us in the comments on Which? Conversation.

3. Get extra protection when you pay

Different payment methods will give you different levels of protection if something goes wrong with your order.

If you’d like extra protection, find out what each payment method gives you.

Debit and credit cards

If you pay on your credit card, you have the added bonus of Section 75 protection.

This means that if something goes wrong with the purchase, and you’ve spent between £100 and £30,000, you can make a claim to get the money back from your credit card provider.

If you pay with your debit card and something goes wrong, you can make a chargeback claim.

This is where the bank withdraws funds that were previously deposited into the retailer’s account and puts them back into yours.

Buy now pay later (BNPL) schemes

A whole raft of retailers now give you the option to ‘buy now pay later’ at the checkout.

Klarna, Clearpay and Laybuy are finance services that allow you to pay for items after you receive them – typically 30 days later or in a series of instalments.

You may be tempted to use one of these services if you have less money coming in during lockdown, but it’s important to make yourself aware of the consequences of missing repayments.

4. Be wary of unsafe and counterfeit products

Online marketplaces, such as Amazon and eBay, don’t have the same responsibility as high street or online retailers for the safety of products sold on their sites, because you’re buying through them rather than from them.

In just the past couple of years, we’ve found examples of dangerous electronics, smoke alarms and toys being sold on online marketplaces.

Here are three tips for avoiding unsafe or counterfeit products:

  1. Avoid unbranded products  Our investigations have uncovered a number of issues with unknown brands or unbranded products. One way to better ensure what you’re buying is safe is to buy from brands you’re familiar with, or directly from retailers you trust. If you’re tempted to buy a product from a brand you haven’t heard of, type it into a search engine first to make sure the brand has clear contact details.
  2. Check seller profiles If you’re buying from a seller on an online marketplace, it’s worth having a quick look at their profile. Things to look out for include foreign seller locations, strange business names and a lack of contact details.
  3. Read the reviews The reviews can also help you to see if anyone else has had problems with the product. If there’s anything suspicious, such as images or reports of malfunctioning, it’s probably wise to choose another item instead.

Read more: your rights if a product is recalled

5. Check the delivery and returns policy

Amazon packages

Deliveries and returns may take longer during lockdown – here’s what you need to check before making your purchase.

Delivery dates

If you’re buying from a seller on an online marketplace, be sure to check what the delivery date is before purchasing. Products from overseas will probably take considerably longer to get to you.

It’s also worth checking which courier the seller or retailer is using and what the estimated delivery date is.

The Post Office has said that its staff absence rates are double what they normally are at this time of year. As a result, it can’t guarantee deliveries by 1pm the next working day but will prioritise Special Delivery parcels, which should be delivered by 1pm or before the end of the day.

Returns

It’s a good idea to check what the return policy is before ordering an item.

All online retailers must give you a minimum of 14 days from when you receive the item to decide whether you want to keep it.

Many retailers are allowing you to return online items as you normally would (either via the Post Office or by arranging a courier service to collect the item).

Some, like Argos, have stopped collecting and exchanging items. It’s asked customers to hold on to any unwanted items and get in touch with it again in around three weeks (at the time of writing) to process the refund.

Contactless deliveries

If you’re concerned about the safety of deliveries, Pubilc Health England has confirmed that couriers and delivery services are taking all precautionary measures to keep themselves and the public safe.

Although there are many unknowns around COVID-19, other viruses aren’t thought to live for very long on surfaces such as packaging. It’s still good practice to wash your hands after handling any deliveries.

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