How to check web links are legit and buying a used car just got less risky

Wendy Knowler's consumer watch-outs of the week

08 September 2023 - 14:56
By Wendy Knowler
The padlock symbol on a website theoretically means a site is safe, but it can be manipulated so it's good to also check other elements such as the 'About Us' or 'Information' pages.
Image: 123RF/Andriy Popov The padlock symbol on a website theoretically means a site is safe, but it can be manipulated so it's good to also check other elements such as the 'About Us' or 'Information' pages.

In this weekly segment of bite-sized chunks of useful information, consumer journalist Wendy Knowler summarises news you can use:

Know your URLs

Scammers rely on us not noticing the subtle differences in the URL or a cloned site’s design and making the assumption that we’re on the website of the legitimate company.

There are ways to protect yourself from these risks, says Simon Campbell-Young, co-founder of Digimune, an authorised Norton distributor in South Africa.

“If you clicked on a link to visit a website, carefully analyse the source of the link and examine the domain name and URL,” he says. “This will help you quickly determine if the URL does not belong to the company that the website claims to be. Pay attention to small spelling mistakes, added or missing letters, or punctuation errors in the URL.”

Then check the SSL or TLS certificate in the top left-hand corner of the URL bar, clicking on the certificate to verify its validity.

“The little padlock symbol theoretically means a site is safe, but remember, it can be manipulated. So relying solely on the padlock is not enough to determine a website’s authenticity,” Campbell-Young says.

It's a good move to go to the website’s “About Us” or “Information” pages. “Often poorly written content is a giveaway,” he says.

“Also, verify the contact information provided on the website to ensure it’s authentic.”

The last piece of advice is a biggie.

If you click on “Contact Us” to find only a web form inviting you to send an e-mail, move on swiftly. The retailer is providing no contact details.

If there is an address, interrogate it — check it out on Google Maps. And if there’s a phone number, try it.

If you can’t make contact with the company before you’ve ordered and paid, see those red flags and walk on.

Buying a used car just got a little less risky

Worried about unwittingly buying a used car that was in such a bad accident that it had to be rebuilt, making it a Code 3? Help is at hand: the South African Insurance Association (SAIA) has finally launched a website for consumers to check on the status of a vehicle in the industry’s Vehicle Salvage Database (VSD).

Named VIN-Lookup, access is free to consumers: You are required to enter your name, ID number and the identity number of your vehicle (VIN) and if the VIN is found on the database, you will find a short story about the vehicle.

Such as: “The vehicle was deregistered as demolished because it had irreparable structural damage that could not be repaired to a safe and roadworthy state and no major components could be used for vehicle spare parts.

“In terms of Regulation 13A read with Regulation 1 and 55 of The National Road Traffic Act, 1996, the vehicle shall not be registered and its parts shall not be used to build or repair any motor vehicle.”

VIN-Lookup is the motor insurance industry's contribution to helping address the problem of people buying unsafe repaired cars from vehicle salvage houses, says SAIA’s insurance risks manager Zakes Sondiyazi.

“We urge consumers to use VIN-Lookup as just part of thorough research when buying a used car rather than treat it as a single solution to understanding the history of a vehicle.”

The implementation of VIN-Lookup is being done in phases. The first phase includes Code 3 (rebuilt), Code 3A (spare parts only) and Code 4 (scrap — permanently demolished).

The database does not contain a comprehensive record of all vehicles and their status — only those that are insured. But its usefulness to consumers will skyrocket when the second phase happens — the addition of written off Code 2 vehicles, which should be by the end of the year.

Code 2 is the general code for used cars, so many people have bought Code 2 cars, not realising that they were previously written off after an accident.

SAIA’s CEO Viviene Pearson has this “but don’t get too excited” caution: “Of the 14-million registered vehicles in South Africa, less than a third is insured (less than 5-million). Therefore, the industry's Vehicle Salvage Database will likely have less than 3% of vehicles that are written off, and most of these are vehicles that can either be rebuilt, or can only be used for spare parts, or should be demolished."

GET IN TOUCH: You can contact Wendy Knowler for advice with your consumer issues via e-mail: or on Twitter: @wendyknowler.