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I’m always hesitant to commit to a new app. It’s a big deal, right? Adding an app to my phone means making room for it on my screen, creating an account, and keeping up with a username and password.
There’s a secondary benefit to saying “no” to new apps. I’m less likely to be scammed that way.
Yes, some scams are disguised as shopping apps that promise to offer great products at even better prices.
That’s exactly what cost one woman close to $30,000.
A Singapore consumer saw an Instagram ad for a retail app that had a great deal. All she had to do was make one purchase, and she’d qualify for a free blender valued at $80.
But when she clicked to download the app, she was redirected to WhatsApp. She downloaded from there and then ordered $30 worth of fruits and vegetables. The checkout process was a mess, though, and it kept throwing up errors.
Before she knew it, her phone went dark and then restarted. As she watched, she saw it was being controlled remotely.
Hackers took over her phone and began sending payments from her bank account. By the time she used her home phone to call the bank, exactly $29,877.09 had been stolen.
But that’s just one of many online shopping scams happening these days.
What are Fake Online Stores?
Online shopping is such a timesaver. I can decide I want something, purchase it five minutes later, and retrieve it from my porch within a few days.
Yet all that convenience comes at a price.
The Internet has created a direct connection between scammers and consumers. All a scammer needs to do is create a realistic-looking website, place some ads, and lure victims to grab their money and/or information.
It’s an easy route to identity theft and fraud. If we aren’t careful, we could find ourselves at the other end of one of these scams.
Types of Fake Online Stores
- Imposter Retailers
- Fake Bargain Shops
- Fake Social Media Shops
- Fake Marketplace Sellers
- Fake Shopping Apps
- Fake Ads and Coupons
- Subscription Scams
The best first step toward avoiding fake online stores is to know how to spot them.
Unfortunately, there are various types, so we must go through them individually.
1. Imposter Retailers
What is it? Creating a site that looks identical to a respected retailer’s is easier than ever. That’s how this fake store works. A scammer creates a site with the logo and branding of a well-known retailer, and then posts ads luring shoppers over. It could be the promise of free shipping or an impressive price on an in-demand product.
Whatever the case, you buy, only to find your purchase never arrives. If you do receive it, it’s a cheap knockoff. These fake sites can contain malware or be set up to steal your money, personally identifiable information (PII), or credit card information.
How to spot it: The best way to spot an imposter site is to examine the URL closely. Your favorite retailer likely owns the primary domain. –– Ikea.com and OldNavy.com, for instance. That means imitation retailers have to choose a different address. There may be a dash in the name or extraneous characters, or the URL may be .biz or .shop instead of .com.
How to avoid it: If you see an ad for a retailer, go straight to the site rather than clicking on the link. Check the ad for a coupon code you can use at checkout. If the ad claims the only way to get the deal is through clicking on a link on a third-party site, skip that deal. It’s not worth the risk.
2. Fake Bargain Shops
What is it? In some cases, the website is completely original but still fake. One of the most enticing is the bargain retailer, which promises discounts on brand names and popular products. Often you’re enticed by an ad with an image of a pricey product with a designer label, supposedly being sold at a discount. As with imposter sites, though, you either lose your money or personal information and if you do receive the product you purchased, it’s a knockoff.
How to spot it: As with imposter sites, you’ll often see many grammar and spelling errors on a fake bargain retailer. But the design will often be amateurish, as well. In some cases, these sites also accept alternative forms of payment, like Bitcoin and wire transfers. These payment options can’t be easily reversed as credit cards and PayPal payments can.
(Note: With PayPal, you must pay using Goods and Services, not Friends and Family, to reverse fraudulent charges.)
How to avoid it: It’s best to stick with reputable retailers, even if someone’s offering you a “too good to be true” deal elsewhere. If you pay for an unfamiliar site, stick solely to methods you can reverse if you’re scammed.
3. Fake Social Media Shops
What is it? You don’t need a website to set up an online storefront. You can sell directly from the site if you use Facebook and Instagram Shops, Pinterest Catalogs, or a Snap Store. This has, of course, piqued scammers’ interests. Since this type of shopping is relatively new, it’s ideal for scammers to exploit. They set up fake social media business profiles, add images of products they may not have, and direct traffic to those shops using ads and organic posts.
How to spot it: Social media shops can be tougher to spot, so it’s important to scrutinize payment options closely. If you pay using checkout on social media, consider whether your payments are protected. If the seller asks for payment via a wire transfer or PayPal Friends and Family method, it’s a sure sign you’re being scammed.
How to avoid it: Look at the history of any social media shop. The seller’s shop should have an established presence on the platform and reviews from previous buyers. Also, look at the retailer’s page. Does it seem like a legitimate business?
4. Fake Marketplace Sellers
What is it? Sites like Amazon, Etsy, eBay, and even Walmart allow third-party sellers to place products for sale. Although these sites have customer protections in place, a scammer can grab quite a few people quickly before anyone knows what’s happening. Scammers can especially thrive during busy times like Black Friday and Amazon Prime Day. In this case, you’re typically given a shoddy product in exchange for your funds, if you receive anything at all.
How to spot it: As a seasoned online shopper, I always refuse to buy a product unless it has a substantial number of reviews. But even with that, you need to be cautious of review hijacking. Review hijacking is when a seller posts one product, collects reviews, then replaces the product with another. Unless buyers pay close attention, they might think the healthy review history is for the advertised product.
How to avoid it: When shopping on an online marketplace, pay particular attention to reviews. Look for photos and specific references in reviews to make sure they’re for the product you’re buying. Carefully check the review policy. Yes, even on sites like Amazon, sellers are allowed to sell nonrefundable products, and the fact that it’s non-refundable is hidden under the buy button. (I know this from very recent experience!)
5. Fake Shopping Apps
What is it? Another way for scammers to reach people quickly is through the various app stores. Yes, these apps are usually yanked down almost as soon as they’re up, but in the meantime, they can convince thousands of people. With this scam, an app emerges in one or more popular app stores, typically promising great deals or a freebie in exchange for a download or purchase. The scam is designed to get you away from the app so that they can convince you to pay using a method that can’t be reimbursed.
How to spot it: As with marketplace shops, reviews are essential to vetting new apps. Whether it’s for shopping or another use, read reviews for any app you’re considering adding to your favorite device. Look at the history of reviews as well as the content. Five-star reviews can be faked, so verify that the reviews are legitimate.
How to avoid it: Before downloading an app, check out the reviews and the app’s history in the store. If possible, give a new app a few days before downloading it to make sure it isn’t snatched off the app store before you download it. If you decide to download, never leave the app to make purchases, and always make sure you’re paying using a method that can be disputed if there’s a problem.
6. Fake Ads and Coupons
What is it? Scammers want to lure you to their site, and flashy ads and coupons are a great way to do that. But it’s important to note that the ads can be a scam. In this case, the ad or coupon has an embedded link that immediately installs malware on your device. The coupon or link can also be designed to encourage you to input information to “get the deal,” including account passwords and credit card details.
How to spot it: Malicious advertising, known as “malvertising,” is NOTORIOUSLY TOUGH TO DETECT. For that reason, it’s best to refrain from clicking on ads. If you see something interesting, pay attention to the URL or website name and search for it. Don’t just go straight to the site if it’s a retailer you’ve never heard of. Instead, do a little research to make sure it’s legit.
How to avoid it: Always use caution when clicking on links, even in online ads. Ensure your antivirus software is updated and working to serve as a backup in case you inadvertently download malware.
7. Subscription Scams
What is it? Have you ever made a one-time purchase, only to find out later that in doing so, you opted in to be shipped that item every single month? Some scammy sites operate that way. In the fine print somewhere on the purchase page, these sites hide that you opt to receive a monthly shipment unless you cancel. Of course, cancelation instructions aren’t easy to find. The site might even continue to ship the item, leaving you no recourse but to dispute the charges.
How to spot it: This scam often happens with healthcare products (especially “supplements”) sold by sketchy-looking websites. It’s why I stick to ordering from major retailers like Amazon. You can choose to have recurring shipments on those sites, but it’s not by default, and it’s certainly not hidden at the bottom of the page.
How to avoid it: If you must order from an unfamiliar online store, ensure you know what you’re getting. Check all the fine print on the order and checkout pages, and do independent research into the company. Or stick to sites you know and trust.
Avoiding Fake Online Stores
Those SHEIN ads can be pretty eye-catching, can’t they?
But those ads also can lead us to fake online stores.
Here are a couple of things you can do to keep yourself safe.
1. Check Google’s Safe Browsing Tool
If you’re faced with an unfamiliar URL, there’s an easy way to check: Google’s Safe Browsing tool.
It’s easy enough to use. Just paste the URL into the search bar and get information on whether there are known threats associated with it. It’s a quick solution to this ongoing issue.
2. Pay with Protection
Before you finalize checkout, take a long, hard look at the payment options.
Try to use a method like PayPal or Venmo. These methods not only offer purchase protection, but they also keep your credit card information tucked away from the person you’re paying.
(Be sure you follow the terms of each payment platform. PayPal requires the payment to be marked Goods and Services, while Venmo requires it to be tagged to a specific profile.)
If a credit card is the only option… stop and ask if you’re sure you want to pay that way.
Okay, you want that item. If so, use credit instead of debit. If the person steals your payment information, you’ll have a jacked-up balance for a while, but your money will stay in your bank account. Credit cards have fraud protection to help you.
Recovering from Fake Online Stores
If your online shopping spree went south, there are some things you can do to recover.
1. Contact Your Bank
As mentioned above, fraudulent charges can be reversed, provided you paid using a protected method.
Even if you didn’t, though, your first step should be to reduce damages. If the fraudster might have captured your credit card or bank account numbers, it’s important to alert the institutions so you can protect your account.
2. Consider Identity Theft Protection
Maybe you didn’t lose money “shopping” on a fake online store.
That doesn’t mean the fraudster can’t still hit you where it counts.
With details like your Social Security number, date of birth, and contact information, an identity thief can apply for credit in your name. Someone could land employment, file taxes, and even open bank accounts –– all in your name.
Identity theft can be both costly and time-consuming to clean up.
That’s where identity theft protection can help. Services like Aura, LifeLock, and IdentityForce can monitor for signs of fraud and alert you if anything’s found. Early detection can be key to reducing damage.
These services can also help you take action if your identity is stolen and cover some of the cost.
3. Report It
If you know of a fake online store, report it immediately. Start with Google’s Phishing Page Report form.
This will get the site delisted so it won’t appear in searches.
If you found the site through an ad, report it to the site hosting that ad.
Ads on social media can be tricky to report. You may have to wait for the ad to appear again to find the Report Ad tool. Considering the large number of sketchy ads on social media these days, though, I’m not sure it’ll keep the scammer from advertising again.
Online shopping makes life more convenient, but it has a downside. Not everything is as it seems, and you could become a victim of fraud if you aren’t careful.
It’s important to use caution, especially when ordering from an unfamiliar site. With it, you can avoid scams while enjoying the convenience of having items delivered straight to your door.
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