Some basic steps to help you check out that Web-site



Introduction

I contribute to Yahoo!Answers and regularly see questions asking "is site xyz genuine and trustworthy"

Just because a site looks professional does not mean it can be trusted. Un-trustworthy sites appear on page one of Google and even as the top sponsored link.

However, there are some warning signs you can look for that may indicate you should not do business with a particular site.

Note: many sites include Google advertising; the adverts displayed are selected by Google NOT the website. Dubious companies do pay Google for advertisements and it is possible for these to be displayed on even the most trustworthy sites such as the New York Times or Telegraph. Treat the sites you visit through advertisements with the same caution as any other unknown site.


Check the "about us" and "contact" information

Some untrustworthy sites are easy to spot, they provide no information about themselves, and their only point of contact is an easy to obtain email address e.g. Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, Live.com.

  • Does the site include a postal address and a land-line telephone number as well as an email contact?

    • It has been a legal requirement since 2007 for UK registered companies to provide a mailing address.

  • Does the website include meaningful "about us" information or just generalities such as who they "link with" or their outlook? This real example from a scam site provides no real facts about the "company".

    • "Our company is based on the belief that our customers' needs are of the utmost importance. Our entire team is committed to meeting those needs. As a result, a high percentage of our business is from repeat customers and referrals. ...."

If the answer to either of these questions is NO then I would go elsewhere.

Does the site have a privacy policy?

  • No privacy policy - avoid.
  • Does the site sell your data? A site may be of dubious value but operate within the law; and may sell your information such as email address to even more dubious entities. Check the privacy policy, e.g. does it refer to passing information on to third parties or other organisations.

How old is the site and where is it registered?

One question I answered related to a site selling cheap tickets. Its contact information included a UK address and an email relating to its domain name. However, it only gave a mobile telephone number; and the domain name (web address) had only been registered a few months before, to a Bermudan rather than UK address.

  • Find out who has registered a domain name e.g. "amazon.com", and when, on a "WHOIS" website such as ezwhois.net.

You will be presented with a long list of information, which will include many dates and addresses. The information of interest is the date the domain was first registered and registrant name and address.

WHOIS listings vary in detail and wording depending on whether it is a ".com",".info",".co.uk" etc however, you should be able to identify the relevant date, name, and address. A further complication is that some registrars allow sites to keep contact details private to stop their details being gathered for spam, but date of registration should still be visible.

Be wary of sites that have only been registered in the past year, and of domains registerd outside the country in which the website is doing business e.g. a "US" website whose domain name indicates it was registered in the Ukraine.

This is a general rule - new businesses start up all the time, and large companies may be international with a business address in a particular country for tax reasons.

You also cannot be 100% certain that contact information provided by WHOIS is truthful: even if the site has not been registered with a stolen credit card, the registrant can change address details to anything they wish.


Who hosts the website?

Web-sites have to be located (hosted) on a web-server. Most web-site owners either pay specialist hosting companies to host their site or use of a companies offering free hosting. For example your blog might be hosted by Google.

It is easy to obtain free hosting for a website without providing genuine registration details. The scam site mentioned above used free hosting.

Identifying who hosts a website can be difficult. You may be able to identify the host in the WHOIS info, mentioned above, or by doing a "traceroute" - an article in its own right so you'll have to Google it. Some free and low cost hosting companies ensure their logo or link appears at the top or bottom of a website's pages: Click through to the host's site and see what sort of hosting they offer. If they do offer free or low cost hosting, and there are already warning signs from the checks above, then steer clear.

Of course legitimate start-ups, blogs and information sites do make use of free and cheap hosting, but can you be sure that such a site has sufficient assets behind it for you to be happy spending money there?


Google the website and company names

Try searches like "website-name scam", "website-name forum" or "company-name review" and see if there are any negative comments.

Note: large websites with lots of visitors are bound to have some unhappy customers, and scam sites may post positive comments about their own site.


"Legitimate" Sites

Some rip-off sites may operate within the law, and pass all the above checks e.g. they may charge something that is free but "legitimise" themselves by providing so called "services" such as "vetting your application". If you're lucky, checking the company out through Google (see above) may warn you.

Example: the US ESTA visa waiver, which can be obtained for free ($14 after 7 Sept 2010) by many nationalities, from the official site. Similarly, UK resident citizens can obtain the European Health Insurance Card free from the official UK Government Site.

This page has more information on travel scams such as the above, and tips to avoid them.

Other "legitimate" sites may regularly provide poor service, fail to meet their promises, or charge rip-off prices - do your own research e.g. check through Google as per the previous section, and for Government "products" search your country's government website domain e.g. .gov, .gov.uk, .gov.au


Registration with official organisation

Your country may have registration/licensing requirements for certain products/services, or there may be a respected industry association for that service. If a website claims to be covered by, or a member of, one of these; then you can often verify any member/licence number quoted on the official licencing/trade site. Don't trust the licence/member link on the website you are checking, but go direct to it e.g. via a google link. You should also google the reputation of any trade association, as it is not unknown for dubious sites to "create their own". See below for UK ABTA & ATOL information, and our travel health page for checking out UK Pharmacies.


UK Consumer Protection - Travel

This is a complex area for which a separate article will be produced. In brief:

all British operators providing packages (e.g. Thomson) should be licensed by the CAA and have an ATOL licence number that can be checked here. Package Holidays from ATOL companies are protected. CAA information on what is protected.

There are various legitimate Travel Agent trade bodies of which ABTA is but one. It costs significant money to become an ABTA member, so if the membership information,contact details, website address etc agree with the details recorded by ABTA's (link below) you can have reasonable confidence it is a genuine site. However, contrary to popular belief ABTA only provides minimal protection i.e. a code of practice! If your travel agent ceases to trade and has not passed on the money for your bookings then, quoting directly from ABTA's own website, "ABTA may not be able to recover your money for you but we can assist in taking the matter up with the relevant authorities." Package Holidays bought through any travel agent should be protected (via the operating companies ATOL) but flight or hotel only bookings will probably have no protection unless you take out additional insurance. You can confirm the details of a site quoting an ABTA membership number here and also find exactly what ABTA does and does not provide the consumer.

If you buy a flight ticket, that is not part of a package, direct from an airline or travel agent, you will probably not be covered by ATOL.

We don't sell anything ourselves - there are too many good value sites already established. Instead we research the market, affiliate with, and provide links to, the best of the best - those sites we consider to be reputable and provide our visitors with the best value on the internet.

For example, when investigating car hire price comparison sites : one of the sites we were considering affiliating with (which was used by large sites, including a major airline) seemed to search a wide range of car hire companies and offer excellent prices. However our research revealed it was actually a broker (negotiating with the hire companies after you believed you had "booked" and paid!) with negative customer feedback. Instead we have ensured our recommendation is a price comparison site with a good reputation which searches actual prices from 50 car hire sites.


Additional Checks

The above tips may identify some of the sites that you should think twice about before using, but not all. Depending how concerned you are you could carry out many more checks such as verifying the address and phone number given.


last updated March 2011 | Author Andy W+
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