The holidays are undoubtedly the biggest time of year for online shopping, but they’re also the most active time of year for online shopping scams. Fortunately, there are precautions you can take to spot and avoid scammers who want to steal your money and personal information. To start, we’ll identify the most common shopping scam on the internet and give you valuable tips you can use to avoid getting duped:
What are they?
Fake websites are one of the most common scams on the internet. First, the scammer builds a website that looks like the real website of a legitimate retailer, brand or marketplace. Oftentimes, they’ll use a similar domain name to the original website and copy the look, logos and content of the original. Next, they’ll try and lure users into buying fake or non-existent products by offering steep discounts. When a user goes to make a purchase, their financial and personal information is taken by the scammers!
The Warning Signs
- Suspiciously Low Prices
“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is!” This is a good rule of thumb to follow when online shopping. Scammers often use bargain prices to bait users, especially on products that are otherwise expensive or in high-demand. Sometimes they will even provide flimsy explanations for the low prices, like claiming it’s a closeout sale, that the products were manufactured overseas for less cost, or that they’re matching market prices in another country. If an expensive or hard to find item is available for a fraction of the regular price, it’s worth comparing prices elsewhere and choosing to buy from a more reliable seller, even if it ends up costing you a bit more money.
- Unusual Domain Names and Typos
Most scammers will try and make the domain name of their copycat website as similar to the real company’s domain name as possible. For example, a scammer trying to copy Amazon’s website amazon.com may launch a copycat website with the domain name amaazon.com, amazon.store or amazonus.com. Before you make any online purchase, double-check the domain name of the website you’re shopping on. Especially after any page loading screens, popups or site redirects. Similarly, websites with multiple typos or obvious grammatical errors should put you on your guard. Legitimate businesses are typically very conscientious of their brand and will carefully check their web content for spelling errors and other glaring mistakes. Messy content can be a sign that the website was built in a rush to make a quick dollar off unsuspecting consumers.
- Unusual Methods of Payment
Not all methods of payment are created equal when it comes to security. Many scammers prefer to ask for money orders, prepaid cash cards, e-currency (i.e. Bitcoin) or wire transfers because it’s difficult for the account owner to recover their money or pursue a complaint when they realize they’ve been scammed. If these are the only payment options available on the website, or the seller is pressuring you to use these methods, look elsewhere. Virtually all legitimate retailers accept credit and debit cards, which are more easily monitored, flagged and frozen in cases of theft. As such, we recommend using this form of payment for making online purchases over any of the options listed previously.
- A Sense of Urgency
Sometimes scammers will try to hurry along a sale so they can get the buyer’s information before they realize they’re being robbed. Stay cautious of websites with flash sales, countdown clocks or other “rush tactics” that try to make you buy without thinking through the purchase. Another common tactic is requiring immediate payment for products before they’re sent or requesting payment up-front in exchange for product vouchers, giveaways or discounts. Whenever possible, withhold payment from an online retailer until you receive the product in person. Discuss this option with your bank for recommendations and advice of this practice or shop through verified marketplaces like Poshmark, that allow users to release payment to sellers at their own discretion.
- Ads on Social Media
While many legitimate businesses advertise on social media, many scammers do too. They’ll make sales for a short time, usually promising knock-off jewelry and other cheap goods with fake brand names (that they may or may not actually send the buyer). After a few sales they delete their website or go “out of business”, thus eliminating all liability and essentially disappearing with your money. The best way to avoid this is to never trust a website just because it was advertised on social media, even if it was shared to you by a friend or family member (Remember, they may have been fooled too!). Advertising on social media is easier and cheaper than a lot of people think, and the ads themselves are neither strictly vetted nor regulated by the platforms that host them.
- Shady Refund and Return Policies
Another giveaway for copycat websites is their refund and returns policy, or more specifically, their lack of one. Scammers will either forego adding this information to their website at all, hide it where it’s hard for users to find or make unfair or cryptic statements within the terms and policies themselves. A decent guideline when shopping online is to look for the refund and returns policy before you browse for what you want. If it takes you more than 2-3 minutes to find it or understand the entire refund and return process, don’t purchase anything from that website.
- Research Companies You Want To Buy From
It never hurts to Google an online retailer before making a purchase. Look for customer reviews, lawsuits and relevant information on business-vetting websites like The Better Business Bureau or The Federal Trade Commission’s website. When reading customers reviews, which can be faked, there are some telltale signs that should make you suspicious. If the company has no reviews, many bad reviews, or alternatively, nothing but 5-star reviews, it’s probably best to find another online retailer. Similarly, compare pricing between multiple retailers both online and in physical stores whenever you can. While it’s not unusual for prices online to be slightly lower than in brick-and-mortar stores, the cost of any product online should be relatively similar from one retailer to the next. For example, if you’re shopping for a particular dress and six retailers are selling it for $39.99 – $49.99, you probably shouldn’t gamble on the one website listing it for $7.99. JUST SAY NO!
- NEVER Use Your Work Computer or Company-Issued Mobile Device For Online Shopping!
We’ve explained why this is a terrible idea in a previous article which you can read by clicking here.
- Trust Your Instincts
This last one may sound lame but it’s true. If you find anything that feels-off about a website while shopping online, even if it’s just the fleeting thought, “That’s weird,” DON’T DO IT. Whatever the deal or bargain is, it’s not worth the potential frustration, hardship and loss of having your bank account drained, your identity stolen or your files hacked. As IT experts who oversee the cyber security of hundreds of businesses, we’ve talked to a lot of people who have experienced this exact situation and they always say the SAME thing, “I didn’t think this would happen to me.”
We hope these tips will help you stay safe during the holidays. And remember, if you need help protecting your business from scams, hackers and other cyber-crime, contact us at 914-934-9775 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.