Find deals and stay safe shopping online: use a VPN
Online shopping has exploded as the high street has made way for low prices, endless choice and next-day delivery.
But online shopping can come with some downsides too. Advertisers and retailers, to say nothing of search engines, know more about you than your local store ever could, including your purchase history and your location.
Do they use it to deliver the best possible experience? You bet: for them.
Let’s look at how that works.
Location, location, location
Digital retailers and their middlemen, the search engines, use location to target ads. For sure. If you’re in the USA, you’re seeing Thanksgiving ads all through November; if you’re in Australia you’re not, because it’s meaningless to you; Australians don’t celebrate that holiday.
That’s fine, as far as it goes. But it goes a bit further.
Some online retailers alter their pricing depending on where you’re searching from; searchers from more affluent countries, states or even zip codes or postcodes are offered higher prices on the same item.
Worse, have you ever viewed an item in an online store, left, come back and found the price has risen? That’s done by tracking your visits, usually using cookies, and then using an algorithm to balance the likelihood that you’ll reject the higher price as against the fact that you’ve already shown you’re interested in the item.
It’s known in the business as ‘dynamic pricing,’ and it’s increasingly the norm. Sometimes you can find different pricing offered to desktop and mobile users, or Mac and PC users.
The tools they use
Websites use two main tools to track you: IP tracking and cookies.
The first time you show up to a website your browser sends a request to the server that hosts the website, basically saying, ‘can I see the website please?’ When it receives that request, the website can see which IP address the request comes from and place you geographically.
If you want to see how this works, by the way, head over to whatismyip.com, and you’ll see just how closely your IP address can place you. Recognize your ISP? Your zip code?
That shows how websites can place you. Now they know where you are.
But once you’ve visited a website, they often store cookies on your computer; little sections of code that record your activity and communicate it to the website you’re visiting.
Viewing cookies is done differently depending on your OS and browser, but if you Google ‘view cookies +”your OS” + “your browser” you should come up with some usable results.
That list will shock you. Every website you’ve visited, sometimes for years, has left a cookie on your computer. There they are, sitting in your browser, telling a bunch of anonymous marketers where you go and what you do. This is what they use to know if you’ve been to their website recently and what you looked at while you were there.
So if you want to get the best price for you, not for the web stores you visit, what can you do?
You need a three-pronged attack.
The toolkit you need:
- A VPN
- Private or Incognito on your browser
- Clear your cookies
First, pick, download and install a VPN. Choosing a good VPN doesn’t have to be complex, but make sure you get one that doesn’t keep logs and where you’re OK with the price. Don’t get a ‘free’ one – then you’re just out of the frying pan and into the fire, with the VPN itself spying on you and selling your data on. If you really don’t want to spend any money, try a free trial of a real VPN or a free account at TunnelBear.
Then turn on your VPN, pick a server and fire up your browser.
Clear your cookies, set your browser to Incognito mode and visit the site you’re interested in.
Take note of the prices on the products you’re interested in, or take a screenshot. The kill the incognito window, clear your cookies again and select a different server in your VPN, preferably one that’s on the other side of the country or in a different country altogether, and try again.
If you’re getting different prices in New York than in Birmingham, or in Austria than Australia, you’re getting ‘dynamically priced.’
One quick warning: Make sure the site will let you buy from a virtual location! You’ll find that info in their ToS.
Save money on flights
There’s one particular kind of purchase that’s very, very location dependent. Whether you’re flying home for Thanksgiving, trying to avoid driving home for Christmas, or just catching a plane, airlines do dynamic pricing like it’s going out of style.
And you can usually buy a ticket from anywhere, so it makes sense to use your incognito mode + VP + cleared cookies to get a real deal; you could literally save hundreds.
All the tracking methods online retailers use are predicated on you not noticing and not doing anything about it. But grab a VPN, set that browser to private, clear your cookies regularly and you could find the online marketplace becomes a very different — and much more affordable — place!
Image Credits: VPN from Elaine333/Shutterstock