With so much discussion online and in the news about online privacy, consumer data hacking, phishing and other web-related threats, you may see the term 'ad fraud' and decide to give up on online shopping all together.
But for once, you needn't worry - because ad frauds aren't out to dupe you, they're out to dupe advertisers.
Here's how it works. Online advertisers pay for their ads in various ways, sometimes by how many clicks the ad gets, sometimes simply by how many times it is seen or even how often it is played (if there is a video in the ad). Often, advertisers buy online ad space via massive ad marketplaces that automatically deliver ads across thousands of publisher sites when the sale of ad space is agreed.
In this complex and fast-paced system, clever fraudsters can invent fake websites, set up for the purpose of registering video ad plays and taking money from advertisers. The site may have no real audience or content, but without protective technology and monitoring in place, the advertiser pays for the ad space anyway.
The buzz about the term 'ad fraud' (and thus the understandable consumer confusion) is actually good news. Recent improvements in standards and platforms are enabling advertisers to eliminate wastage and fraud and put those ad fraudsters out of business. But that's for the media geeks to celebrate.
What you as a consumer need to know is this: yes, it is safe to click on ads.
The vast majority of web ads - as in billions of impressions served every day - are safe and legitimate. With the majority of ads offering enticing deals - free shipping, coupon codes, express delivery and more - there's really no real reason to miss out on the action, especially since the tiny percentage of suspect ads is very easy to avoid with a few simple precautions.
Six steps to click with confidence
Those of us addicted to online shopping don't think twice about responding to ads that appeal to us. But if you want to eliminate all doubt about which ads you should click, here's all you need to do:
1. Only deal with brands and publishers you're familiar with
Ads displayed on the most popular websites are screened thoroughly.
2. Check the URL
If you click an ad and arrive on a page, check that the URL used is the legitimate website for the product you are buying.
3. Check the padlock symbol
When it comes to checking out, advertiser pages are encrypted so that your bank details are safe. Make sure the padlock symbol appears in the browser when you arrive at the payment page.
4. Avoid intrusive ads
Ads that stop you in your online tracks, with no method to close them (X) without performing an action such as watching a video or clicking on an area in the ad, do not adhere to advertising guidelines. Avoid providing details to any of these ads or the pages that they click through to.
5. Trust your gut
If you don't feel safe paying on a website, contact the advertiser first. Most websites have a support section which should include an email address, a phone number or a Twitter handle that you can reach out to if you have questions or would like to pay in a different way.
6. Use a protected credit card (and check your statement)
The best protection online is using a credit card that offers clear payment protection. Check with your bank before making large purchases online to be sure that in the highly unlikely event you are a victim of fraud, the bank can simply cancel the transaction.
Ads, yes. Email, no.
Remember, the biggest risk to you as an online shopper isn't ads, it is 'phishing', which is usually an email designed to get you to hand over your personal data or input credit card details into a fake website. But email is a story for another day.
By using your common sense, clicking through an online ad is safe - and it can help you to shop without ever having to leave the comfort of your seat!