Let’s face it – this Christmas is going to be on a budget for millions of people. Lots of readers have contacted me to ask how to save money ahead of the big day and the Mirror’s inbox is heaving with emails from people concerned about making ends meet.

It’s not surprising that lots of us will be on the hunt for a bargain to beat some of the rising costs elsewhere. As we approach the sales season, it makes sense to be careful, as there are lots of dodgy retailers out there, fake firms and sharp practices.

My top tips in a single sentence? Be a Christmas cynic, don’t click to buy too quickly and check to see how you can return items before you commit.

Legit firms, costly changes

We’re all used to shopping online these days, so it’s easy to become complacent. But online retailers change and evolve and there are a few things to watch out for.

Firstly, many retailers have decided to start charging for returning goods – or to be specific, they’ve stopped free postage for returns. This doesn’t affect your rights with wonky or misrepresented goods – the retailer pays for those. However, before you buy, check to see what the cost of returning items will be if you don’t like them and make sure you follow the rules around packaging, tags and postage so you don’t end up buying by default.

Beware of ‘buy now, pay later (BNPL) options at the till too. I actually clicked on a credit option the other day by accident as I tried to make a purchase while distracted by the news. BNPL is tempting, but bear in mind that if you get hit by a mystery bill – from an energy price hike to an unexpected expense – you might miss your payment date and end up with a debt collector.

Black Friday fakery

Last year, the consumer association Which? reported that 90% of the Black Friday deals were the same price six months before the sales – or more outrageously, were even cheaper.

Here’s my top tip. You don’t go to a supermarket hungry, because you buy more things that you don’t want or need. So don’t go near the Black Friday sales without a clear idea of what you want to buy. I still have a multi-pack of electric toothbrush heads I bought on a whim three years ago. Let me tell you, it takes a long time to get through 100 toothbrush heads.

There are lots of online price trackers you can use for free that give you an idea of how a price fluctuates throughout the year. Bear in mind that a recommended retail price (RRP) might only be charged rarely if at all. That’s set by the manufacturer, but it allows retailers to ‘discount’ it. But if an item with an RRP of £800 is on sale for £600 nine months of the year, I’d argue that it’s actually worth £600.

Social media shops

Buying and selling goods on social media has become increasingly complicated in recent years – with thousands of people reporting problems with the quality of the goods they’ve bought. Adverts on social media sites like Facebook or links on Instagram can look flashy and impressive. But I’ve heard from readers about some shockers. One man bought a beer cooler shaped like a fire truck. It turned out to be a tiny toy. Another person bought a tennis ball firer that was designed to entertain dogs. It didn’t entertain him when a tennis ball in a plastic bag turned up. It didn’t even bounce. And I’d need at least a week to tell you about the volume of rubbish bridesmaid dresses and cheap and nasty clothing disasters.

Before you commit and click, do a bit of research first. Take some time to go on to the actual retailer’s website and have a look at the ‘contact us’ page. If the firm is based outside of the UK, it doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it does mean that lots of the consumer rights we have for goods and services we buy may not apply. Next, check the returns policy. You may have to pay quite a lot to return an item to where it came from around the world – often more than you paid for it.

If a business is based in the UK, then your right to return goods and get a refund within 14 days if you don’t like them, or 30 days if something is wrong with the goods or they don’t turn up. Watch out for Facebook fan groups too, where people are trading tickets and luxury goods. These strangers might sound like friends, but it could be an elaborate sting.

In demand items

Many Christmas cons work by using bait. This year, given the scarcity of everything from toys to turkeys, there’s a lot of bait out there. When we go online shopping, we tend to start with the shops we know and trust. But as time ticks on and it becomes harder to find the items we want, people tend to cast their nets wider. We also tend to check less the more we panic. This opens the door for fraudsters advertising ‘in-demand’ items. Look for weird website addresses, missing contact details and vague legal information at the bottom of the website. Ask yourself: how has this seller managed to get large quantities of something the big shops have run out of?

Subscription and voucher traps

While you’re browsing online you might find that there are a few special offers available, like free beauty products, or links to get discounts from retailers. Often these offers are ‘subscription traps’. These sites take your details and after the ‘free’ period ends’ start to charge you for goods or services that you didn’t want or authorise. These charges are monthly and you may not even have noticed the money leaving your account at all. Subscription traps that send you low quality goods for large prices are usually from firms based abroad and are often outright cons. Membership services like discounts and voucher offers are sometimes legitimate businesses but still charge you a membership fee each month to get the ‘offers’. Ask yourself before you sign up to anything – why does the firm need my card number if the goods are free.

What can I do if I’ve been ripped off?

There’s no foolproof solution to avoiding fraud, but there are things you can do:

  • Try to pay by credit card first then debit card as both allow you to ‘charge back’ money if goods or services are not provided. You may also be able to claim back from your credit card provider if there’s a problem.
  • Never click on a link in a text or email. Always search for the legitimate website then contact the business to check if the message you’ve received is legitimate.
  • If you’ve transferred money, contact your bank as soon as possible and ask them to recall the money. You have a tight window to do this so act quickly.
  • Don’t make any online purchases before checking where the firm is based and how you’d contact them if there was a problem.

Check out online review sites before purchasing to get a feel for how other people have found their experience.

Featured in Mirror – Martyn James


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