The rise of online retailing and web marketing means that many of us now buy goods and services from companies we had never heard of before they appeared in an internet search.
Web-only firms have lower overheads than their high-street rivals and their prices are often much cheaper as a result.
Read our guide to avoiding scams on eBay.
But how can you be sure you are dealing with a bona-fide enterprise rather than cowboys intent on ripping you off?
Here are some top tips to help you identify genuine businesses.
1. Do more research
If a new company has appeared at the top of an online search for the product you want to buy, type its name into the search engine before you decide to go ahead with a purchase.
This should help you find feedback and reviews from its previous customers, or news about its operations.
If this research draws a blank, your suspicions should be raised.
How to avoid getting scammed on large purchases.
2. Check the site
Have a look at the retailer’s own website: are there customer reviews here – and do they look convincing?
Is there a UK landline number you can call the firm on? If the only means of contact is by mobile or email, this could be a warning sign.
Find out also if the company has a physical address in this country.
Five tips for avoiding scams at cash machines.
3. Are they accredited?
Depending on what goods or services the company provides, it may be accredited by a trade body or similar organisation.
If such a claim is made, check directly with the body that the firm’s membership is genuine.
Have you heard about the petrol and rings scam?
4. Check for financial fraudsters
If the company you plan to do business with is offering financial services, such as advice or investments, check it is registered with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).
The FCA also has a database of bogus firms that should be avoided. It can be consulted here.
How to deal with bogus callers.
5. Choose your payment method with care
Once you decide to go ahead with your transaction, be careful how you pay.
If the company wants you to arrange a money transfer using a wire service or a BACS transfer direct from your bank account, this could be another indication things aren’t what they seem.
For transactions of more than £100, paying by credit card means you get extra protection under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act: this means you can claim your money back from your card provider if anything goes wrong.
For more useful tips and information, browse our money articles.