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Online Shopping Scams

AARP | Comments: 0

En español | The internet continues to reshape the way we shop, with retail apps and social media stores adding to consumers’ online options. Cybercriminals are keeping pace. Online purchasing was the most common scam type reported to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) in 2020, representing nearly 1 in 4 complaints, and the one that most often led to a financial loss, according to the BBB’s annual “Scam Tracker Risk Report.”

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline: 877-908-3360
  • Report it on AARP’s Scam-Tracking Map

Sign up for Watchdog Alerts for more tips on avoiding scams.

The typical shopping scam starts with a bogus website or, increasingly, mobile app. Some faux e-stores are invented from whole cloth, but many mimic trusted retailers, with familiar logos and slogans and a URL that’s easily mistaken for the real thing. They offer popular items at a fraction of the usual cost and promise perks like free shipping and overnight delivery, exploiting the premium online shoppers put on price and speed.

Some of these copycats do deliver merchandise — shoddy knockoffs worth less than even the “discount” price you mistook for a once-in-a-lifetime deal on, say, Tiffany watches or Timberland boots. More often, you’ll wait in vain for your purchase to arrive. And your losses might not stop there: Scammers may seed phony sites, apps or links in pop-up ads and email coupons with malware that infects your device and harvests personal information for use in identity theft.

Clothing and jewelry, furniture and home decor, electronics, cosmetics, health and nutrition, and pets are among the most common categories of products in shopping scams, according to the BBB. Not surprisingly, these frauds flourish during the holiday season. You need not forgo the ease and endless selection of online shopping, but these precautions can help you make sure you get what you pay for.

SCAM WATCH

Online shopping scams involve scammers pretending to be legitimate online sellers, either with a fake website or a fake ad on a genuine retailer site.

How this scam works

While many online sellers are legitimate, unfortunately scammers can use the anonymous nature of the internet to rip off unsuspecting shoppers.

Scammers use the latest technology to set up fake retailer websites that look like genuine online retail stores. They may use sophisticated designs and layouts, possibly stolen logos, and even a ‘.com.au’ domain name and stolen Australian Business Number (ABN).

Many of these websites offer luxury items such as popular brands of clothing, jewellery and electronics at very low prices. Sometimes you will receive the item you paid for but they will be fake, other times you will receive nothing at all.

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The biggest tip-off that a retail website is a scam is the method of payment. Scammers will often ask you to pay using a money order, pre-loaded money card, or wire transfer, but if you send your money this way, it’s unlikely you will see it again or receive your purchased item.

A newer version of online shopping scams involves the use of social media platforms to set up fake online stores. They open the store for a short time, often selling fake branded clothing or jewellery. After making a number of sales, the stores disappear. They also use social media to advertise their fake website, so do not trust a site just because you have seen it advertised or shared on social media. The best way to detect an fake trader or social media online shopping scam is to search for reviews before purchasing.

Warning signs

  • A product is advertised at an unbelievably low price, or advertised to have amazing benefits or features that sound too good to be true.
  • The other party insists on immediate payment, or payment by electronic funds transfer or a wire service. They may insist that you pay up-front for vouchers before you can access a cheap deal or a give-away.

The social media based store is very new and selling products at very low prices. The store may have limited information about delivery and other policies.

  • An online retailer does not provide adequate information about privacy, terms and conditions of use, dispute resolution or contact details. The seller may be based overseas, or the seller does not allow payment through a secure payment service such as PayPal or a credit card transaction.
  • Protect yourself

    Check if the website or social media page has a refund or returns policy, and that their policies sound fair. The better online shopping and auction sites have detailed complaint or dispute handling processes in case something goes wrong.

    Avoid any arrangement with a stranger that asks for up-front payment via money order, wire transfer, international funds transfer, pre-loaded card or electronic currency, like Bitcoin. It is rare to recover money sent this way. Never send money or give credit card or online account details to anyone you don’t know or trust.

    Have you been scammed?

    If you have bought something online and there is a problem, you should first try to contact the retailer or auction service. There may be a legitimate reason for the problem.

    If you are not satisfied with the response and suspect that it may be a scam, you may be able to arrange a charge-back through your bank or credit union if you have paid by credit card. You may wish to contact your local consumer protection agency to seek assistance.

    We encourage you to report scams to the ACCC via the report a scam page. This helps us to warn people about current scams, monitor trends and disrupt scams where possible. Please include details of the scam contact you received, for example, email or screenshot.

    Spread the word to your friends and family to protect them.

    The American Greed Report: Online shopping scams: Eight signs you’re on a fake site

    The Better Business Bureau has been warning consumers against Pandorapick.com. The site boasts discounts of “up to 75% off” on jewelry such as charm bracelets, charms, beads and earrings.

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    Pandorapick.com closely resembles Pandora Jewelry’s site, Pandora.net. Pandora is a legitimate Danish jewelry company with U.S. headquarters in Baltimore. But Pandorapick.com, the Better Business Bureau says, is selling “cheap imitations from China.” They’ve received complaints through their Scam Tracker tool from users who’ve received low-quality items.

    The two sites look similar at first blush, but a closer look at Pandorapick.com reveals red flags such as grammatical errors and a statement on the payment page saying the buyer may be charged international fees.

    Pandora Jewelry writes on its website, “Pandora will continue to fight those who attempt to abuse our name and brand to sell counterfeit products and deceive our customers, and our Brand Protection team maintains the highest standards of brand protection.”

    According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the global counterfeit trade industry is worth nearly half a trillion dollars a year. And cheap knockoffs are not the only problem. “There are a lot of websites that are not even shipping a fake product, they’re just taking money and running,” says David DeMille, a security expert with A Secure Life, a website that offers advice about all aspects of personal security as well as reviews of products such as home security systems and anti-virus software.

    If you see a great deal online, it can be tempting to grab it right away — but first, protect your wallet by knowing how to spot some major warning signs.

    Too-steep discounts

    If you see a deal on an item that seems a little too good to be true, do some price comparison shopping before you click “purchase.” Visit websites of other retailers and see if you can find any similar deals on the same product. Usually, other retailers will try to compete if one is offering a big discount. DeMille recommends the website shopstyle.com, which is essentially a search engine for fashion products. “They vet the companies they’re working with, so they’re all legitimate,” DeMille said. You can search for the type of item or brand you’re looking for — and look for new sales and deals on that item. Let’s say you see a handbag for $50 on a site you’re not sure is legitimate. If you don’t see any on sale for under $100 on shopstyle.com, the site you saw is likely a fake.

    Poor website design and sloppy English

    Fashion companies specialize in design — and most spend good money on perfecting the design of their site. “They’re always going to want to have the best imagery of their products and it’s going to be shiny and fancy,” says DeMille. Poor-quality photos and cluttered, unprofessional-looking design are huge red flags that the site can’t be trusted. Also, read the fine print carefully before buying anything. Look out for strange wording or spelling and grammar mistakes, as it’s common for these sites to be run out of countries where English isn’t the first language.

    A suspect domain name

    Most retail websites have simple URLs — like michaelkors.com, louisvuitton.com or calvinklein.us. If the company has a trademark on its name, its domain name typically matches that name. If you see extra words in the URL like “deals,” “sales” or “super discounts,” as well as extra characters, there’s a good chance the website is a scam. You can also type an address into Google’s Transparency Report to see the site’s safety rating from Google.

    The site hasn’t been around for very long

    With some exceptions, most established brand names and retailers have been on the Internet for years. If you’re not sure about a site, check the Wayback Machine, an archive of the Internet found at archive.org. Users can look up a website and see archived versions of the website across time. “You can actually see what content used to be there, what design used to be there,” DeMille said. “It could be a big red flag if within the past year the website came into being.”

    You can’t pay with a credit or debit card

    Beware if the seller is requiring you to pay by money order, bitcoin, cash, wire transfer or a prepaid gift card. Reputable sites will almost always allow you to pay with secure methods, such as credit cards, debit cards or PayPal. With methods such as wire transfers, you have little recourse to get your money back. Also, go elsewhere if a site ever asks you for information that seems too personal or unnecessary for the transaction, such as your Social Security number.

    Shady contact information

    If the contact email given is a yahoo email address, or if there’s simply a form to fill out on the page instead of an address or phone number, watch out. Trusted retailers typically use their company name or the site’s domain name in their email address. An international contact number is another major sign something is amiss. Try calling the number if you suspect something isn’t right. If you don’t get an answer during normal business hours or the number isn’t in service, the site probably isn’t legitimate. You can also look up the website on GoDaddy’s WHOIS tool. WHOIS will show you the email address and phone number associated with the account, where the site is purportedly located, and the site’s creation date. If the site is located in China and the brand is based in New York, this could be a major tipoff.

    Unclear refund policy

    A trustworthy retailer will tell you how and where to return a product you’re unhappy with. Fake websites, on the other hand, will often have refund policies that are difficult to understand, hard to find or nonexistent. If you can’t find the policy, try contacting the company to ask them directly. Stay away if you get a vague answer. Also, if they’re shipping the product, they should give you an idea of when it will arrive. Be aware that the Federal Trade Commission requires sellers to ship items within 30 days of the order if no specific date is promised.

    Poor reviews

    Of course, bad reviews from other users is one of the biggest signs that a website is fraudulent. Type the company’s name and “scam” into Google and see if there are any complaints about the site. Also, you can check the Better Business Bureau for reviews or use their Scam Tracker tool to see if others have reported the site.

    If you think you’ve been scammed

    If you think you’ve already made a purchase from a fraudulent website, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, your state attorney general, or the Better Business Bureau.

    Trust your instincts

    Above all, go with your gut. DeMille says people are sometimes willing to suspend disbelief because they want the discounts they’re seeing to be real. “I think a lot of people kind of know in the back of their head that they’re on a website that’s maybe a little less reputable,” DeMille said. “If you have some hesitation, really dive in, do a little bit of research and try to determine if the website is official or not before putting in any of your credit card information.”

    CNBC’s “American Greed” looks at the dark side of the American Dream. Catch an all new episode Monday 10P ET/PT

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