When it comes to fraud, we tend to think of things like Ponzi schemes, credit card fraud and pyramid schemes. Although these types of fraud are rampant, there’s another type of fraud that’s growing more common with each passing year: fake online shopping websites.
Fake online shopping website fraud can happen in a handful of different ways, from companies that sell fraudulent products to ones that take a consumer’s money but never ship the items purchased.
Are you worried you might’ve been the victim of online shopping fraud? Read on for everything you need to know about fake online shopping websites and how you can help protect yourself.
What are fake online shopping websites?
Fake online shopping websites are websites that are created to look legitimate with the goal of stealing consumers’ money and/or personal information. Oftentimes, these websites ship a fraudulent product or never ship an item at all. Many of these websites attempt to copy a legitimate website in order to trick consumers.
“Many fake websites will harvest the content and images from a legitimate site so that it appears they are offering the same products as an official seller,” said Jan-Maarten Laurijssen, chief operating officer at Pointer Brand Protection, an anti-counterfeiting and brand protection company. “They then either do not supply any product at all, or sell ones that are counterfeit.”
Unfortunately, “scam and fake websites are depressingly common,” said Laurijssen, adding that recent research from the Ecommerce Foundation found that the average consumer comes into contact with 55 scam attempts in the course of a year. According to Experian’s 2017 E-commerce Fraud report, online shopping fraud attacks rose by 30% from 2016 to 2017.
“Fake sites, in my experience, are just as numerable as legitimate sites,” said Chelsea Brown, a cybersecurity analyst who helps online businesses protect themselves from threats. “There aren’t accurate statistics on this due to the fake sites getting taken down and new ones immediately being published, oftentimes before the original fake site is completely taken down.”
How do I verify a website is legitimate?
Here are eight ways you can figure out whether you’re dealing with a legitimate online retailer.
1. Verify the URL. The easiest way to identify a fraudulent website is by verifying the URL, Brown said. Make sure the web address is prefaced by “https,” and that it has an SSL (secure) certificate. (Make sure the “s” is in the “https”—this letter denotes that the website is secure.)
Also take a look at the actual URL of the website. For example, if you shop at www.JCrew.com and you get an email from a company with a URL like JCrew.Discount.com, you may be dealing with a potential phishing scam. “Make sure you know exactly what the [real] website’s address is, and always compare to the website you’re visiting,” Brown said.
2. Look at the contact information. One of the best ways to spot a fake website is by looking at the contact information. Many scam websites will have no street address or contact details—or they’ll contain fake versions of these things, Laurijssen said.
3. Any spelling and grammatical errors? Spelling errors and grammatical errors are both common signs that you might be dealing with a fake online shopping website.
“Many of these websites are run in English but from countries where English is not the first language,” Laurijssen said. “They will frequently contain spelling mistakes and fail to have any consistency [regarding] the information presented.”
4. Check the payment method. If the company doesn’t accept credit or debit cards—and instead says you have to pay using PayPal, a gift card, wire transfer or cryptocurrency—this is a major red flag.
5. Don’t ignore design flaws. Brown said another major red flag is when you see design flaws on a website, such as broken links or images that don’t line up or appear in different sizes.
6. Look for super-low prices. Do you see extremely low prices for a product you know is usually a lot more expensive? If so, you could be on a fraudulent website. Laurijssen said super-low prices that are well below market price are a common sign of a fake online shopping website.
In addition, he says that while genuine websites often have prices ending in $0.99, fake websites will often have strange figures like $17.34, as well as odd percentage discounts, like 17% off.
7. Check every page on the website. When you’re dealing with a fake online shopping website, one page could look entirely legitimate, while another could look fake. Before making a purchase, check various pages within the site (such as “About Us” and “Contact Us”) to see if any are blank or broken, Laurijssen said. He also advises checking social media links, which could be broken, too.
8. What’s the refund policy? Legitimate websites will clearly and concisely explain their return or exchange policy. Fake online shopping sites, on the other hand, will often have confusing return/exchange policies, or none at all.
How can I protect myself online?
It’s important to protect yourself online so you’re not the victim of fraud related to a fake online shopping website. Here are some of the best ways to try to protect yourself from fraudulent activity online.
Verify the company with a third-party agency. If you’ve looked out for the above red flags and you’re still unsure whether the company in question is legitimate, verify it with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or another third-party agency.
“If there is no trace of a company online outside of what they are telling you, then they are likely to be suspect,” Laurijssen said.
Head to Google. Experian recommends doing a quick Google search of the website and owner to see what pops up. You might also want to Google the name of the company with the word “scam,” e.g., “JCrew.Discount.com + scam.”
When in doubt, you can also use Google’s Transparency Report Tool, which gives websites safety ratings. If you get a result of “No unsafe content found,” you’re likely in the clear.
Type in the web address for the store you want to visit. Brown advises always directly typing the web address (such as www.JCrew.com) into your browser instead of clicking on a link from a coupon email or even a Google search.
“Hackers will often make fake web pages that look identical to the stores you’re visiting just to get your credit card information,” she said.
Check out suspicious email communications. If you emailed back and forth with a company you’re worried is illegitimate, use email lookup services to try and substantiate suspicious communications.
Keep tabs on your store accounts. Some online criminals will open a new account in your name in an attempt to break into your existing account, Brown says. Because of this, she said it’s crucial to keep track of store accounts when possible, especially ones you don’t use often.
“Many customers don’t check on store accounts and won’t see the additional charges until the bill comes in the mail,” she said.
Check your credit card statements carefully. Each month, take the time to review each charge on your credit card statement. Look for company names that seem suspicious or are unfamiliar to you.
Don’t use the same username/password combination for every website. One way to better protect yourself is by varying your username/password combinations or using a password manager. Otherwise, try to use a different combination for every store account you hold.