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Online shopping provides many benefits. It's easy to comparison shop and find discount codes to make sure you're getting a good deal. Plus, you don't need to leave the house. But there's a dark side as well—you have to be wary of scammers.
The Better Business Bureau's Online Purchase Scams Report has consistently found online purchase scams are one of the top three riskiest scams based on how prevalent and costly they are to consumers. Of the people who reported a scam to the BBB, nearly 79% said they lost money in 2020 due to an online purchase scam.
Keep an eye out for some of these red flags if you want to stay safe next time you're shopping online, or even when you're browsing and get enticed by an ad.
1. Prices Are Surprisingly Low
Everyone likes getting a good deal, but a low price might indicate more risk than reward—especially when it's a deep discount for popular brands and in-demand products.
Scammers set up fake online stores and "sell" items through a reputable marketplace website. In either case, you could wind up paying for a counterfeit product or get absolutely nothing in return. You might even receive fake shipping information or a warning that there will be shipping delays, giving the scammer more time to disappear before you suspect something is amiss.
2. You Spot Spelling Errors in the URL
It's easy to set up an e-commerce website, and scammers who do so may then pay to advertise their fake online stores.
These websites could use a real company's logo, product images and descriptions. However, if you look closely, you might notice some minor spelling errors in the URL.
For example, the website might be wwwbrandname.com—notice there's no period after the www. Or, perhaps it's brandnaame.com (an extra "a") or the site ends in .bargain or .shop instead of .com. Also, look out for sites that start with HTTP rather than HTTPS, which denotes a site is secure and authenticated.
The fraudster's end goal could vary depending on the scam. Some people might be selling counterfeit or stolen products. Others might try to collect buyers' payment and personal information, and then use or sell it.
3. It's a New Website Without Much Information
Looking beyond the URL, there are several steps you can take to try to identify fake online shopping websites.
For instance, look for pages on the website with additional information about the company and its policies. If you don't find an "about" page, return policy or contact information, that could be a red flag.
You could also take a more technical (but easy) approach by looking up when the website domain was registered. You can search for "domain age checker" to find free tools. A recently registered domain could be a sign that scammers created the site; some will only keep a site up for a few weeks or months before shutting it down and starting another.
4. You're Asked to Use Unusual Types of Payment
Another red flag is when you're asked to pay with specific payment options, such as:
- Gift cards
- Money orders
- Wire transfers
- Bank transfers
- P2P payment apps, like Cash App or Zelle
It's often difficult, and may be impossible, to get your money back if you send a payment with one of these options. Most legitimate services will accept a credit card or debit card. In general, using a credit card could be safer because it's not directly tied to your bank account, and credit cards may have better fraud protection guarantees.
Some payment apps, such as PayPal and Venmo, offer purchase protection when you indicate you're paying for a product or service. But beware: The seller could ask you to indicate sending money to a friend because there's a transaction fee for selling goods and services; you could lose out on the protection if you do.
5. The Site Pressures You to Act Fast
Artificial time constraints can push people to quickly act without thinking through a situation. Even if it's a marketing gimmick rather than an outright scam, being aware of the psychological tricks at play can help you make a more informed decision.
Some examples include countdown timers for when a sale will end or your cart will expire. There may also be popups telling you that other people are buying products, and warnings that there's limited stock left.
6. The Site Requests Unnecessary Information
Companies need to collect a minimal amount of payment and contact information to process and fulfill your order.
However, you shouldn't need to share additional personal information, such as your Social Security number or bank account details, to place an order. Some sites may ask for your date of birth so they can send you marketing material, but it shouldn't be a requirement for most purchases.
Additionally, be wary of any site that requests you download a computer or mobile app as part of the ordering process.
7. You're Shopping on Social Media
Many side hustles and small businesses sell products and primarily promote their company on social media channels. There are definitely great finds out there and creative artisans who could use your support.
But whether there's a link to a website (remember tips 2 and 3 above) or you're asked to send your payment and shipping information in a direct message, keep your guard up a little higher when you're starting from a social media page.
Staying on top of the latest scams can be difficult, and scammers continually try new approaches. But take a deep breath and pause before you send anyone your payment and personal information. If it feels a little off or too good to be true, it might be best to move on.
There are also some basic ways you can protect yourself, such as searching for reviews of the website or service and only using payment methods that have fraud or purchase protections. If you do fall victim to a scam, you can follow guides on how to respond. And, if you're worried about identity theft and fraud, look into identity theft protection.