Online shopping scams: How to avoid falling into their trap

28 November 2023

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The ability to shop 24/7 from the comfort of your own home is a luxury that was unimaginable just a few decades ago. Today, online shopping has revolutionized our buying experience. In an instant, we have access to a wide range of products from around the world, all available at our fingertips. And it’s not just about the variety or the convenience (no need to worry about store hours, long lines or the hassle of finding a parking spot), but online shopping offers competitive prices for consumers who can shop anytime, anywhere and from any device.

While we revel in the ease and comfort of online shopping, there’s a growing menace that consumers need to be vigilant about – online shopping scams. With the proliferation of e-commerce, cybercriminals have found new ways to exploit unsuspecting shoppers into revealing their personal and financial information or making them pay for products that never arrive or are of poor quality. In fact, according to the FTC (the US Federal Trade Commission), the number of reported online shopping scams has seen a significant surge in the past few years, so much so that in 2022 alone, nearly $8.8 billion was lost to scams, an increase of more than 30% from the previous year.

As we approach the busiest online shopping season – Christmas – it’s crucial to be extra vigilant. So here are some of the most common online shopping scams that you should be aware of and some tips and tricks on how to avoid falling into their trap.

Common online shopping scams

Fake websites

Scammers often create sophisticated websites that mimic legitimate online stores, offering products at very low prices or with attractive discounts. These can be challenging to distinguish from the real ones, especially for unsuspecting consumers since scammers may use a similar domain name, logo or design to fool you into thinking they are the real deal. However, once you place an order and pay with your credit card or other payment method, you either receive nothing, a counterfeit product or a product that is different from what you ordered. The scammers may also use your payment information to make unauthorized charges or steal your identity.

How you may fall into this trap: You see an advertisement on social media for a brand-name product that is on sale for a fraction of its original price. You click on the link and are directed to a website that looks like the brand’s official website. You decide to buy the product and enter your credit card details, however, you never receive a confirmation email or a tracking number, and the product never arrives. When you try to contact the seller, you realise that the website is no longer accessible and the phone number or email address is invalid.

How to spot: Before you buy anything online, always check the website’s URL and make sure it starts with https://, while it has a padlock icon next to it. This indicates that it is secure and encrypts your data. Also, look for spelling or grammatical errors, poor-quality images or suspicious pop-ups on the website. If the website offers products that are too good to be true or asks for personal information that is not relevant to the purchase, such as your Social Security number or bank account details, be wary.

Woman on her mobile shopping online

Phishing scams

Phishing scams involve tricking individuals into providing sensitive information, such as login credentials or credit card details, by posing as a trustworthy entity. These scams often manifest as emails or messages claiming urgent issues with your account that require immediate attention and the main goal is to get you to reveal your personal or financial information, such as your passwords, credit card numbers or account details. Alternatively, they may try to infect your device with malicious software that can steal your data or lock your files.

How you may fall into this trap: You receive an email from a well-known online retailer that claims you have won a gift card, a coupon or a free product. The email asks you to click on a link and enter your login credentials or other information to claim your prize, however, the link takes you to a fake website that looks like the real one only it has a slightly different URL. When you enter your information, the scammers capture it and use it to access your account or make fraudulent transactions.

How to spot: Before you click on any link or open any attachment in an email or message, always check the sender’s address and the subject line. If this is unfamiliar, misspelt or contains random numbers or letters, it may be a sign of a phishing scam. Also, look for urgent or threatening language or requests for personal or financial information in the email or message. If you are not sure whether an email or message is legitimate, do not click on any link or open any attachment. Instead, go directly to the company’s official website or contact their customer service to verify its authenticity.

Identity theft

With identity theft scammers use your personal information, such as your name, date of birth, Social Security number or credit card number, to impersonate you and commit fraud. They may use your information to open new accounts, apply for loans, make purchases or file tax returns in your name, all of which can damage your credit score, drain your bank account or cause legal problems for you.

How you may fall into this trap: You notice some unfamiliar charges on your credit card statement or you receive a bill for a service or a product that you did not order. You also notice that your credit score has dropped significantly or that you have been denied credit or a loan that you applied for. When you check your credit report, you find out that someone has opened new accounts or taken out loans in your name without your knowledge or consent.

How to spot: To prevent this from happening to you, you should always protect your personal and financial information online and offline. Do not share your information with anyone you do not know or trust, and do not respond to unsolicited calls, emails or messages that ask for your information. Use strong passwords and make sure you change them regularly, while use different ones for different accounts. In addition, make use of a secure network and a firewall when you access the internet and avoid using public Wi-Fi or computers for online transactions. Lastly, check your credit card and bank statements regularly and review your credit report at least once a year.

Older woman sitting down looking at her laptop

How to avoid online shopping scams

They may be costly and stressful, but online scams can also be avoided if you follow some simple tips and tricks. Here are some of the best ways to protect yourself so that you can continue enjoying a safe and hassle-free shopping experience:

  • Verify the authenticity of the website: stick to well-known and reputable online retailers. If you’re unsure about a website, do some research by checking reviews and testimonials from other shoppers. Also, check for contact information and remember that legitimate online stores provide clear and accessible contact information, including a physical address and customer support details. Be wary of sites that only offer a contact form without any additional information.
  • Be cautious with emails or messages: avoid clicking on links or downloading attachments from unsolicited emails or messages. Legitimate companies rarely ask for sensitive information via email. If in doubt, contact the company directly through official channels to verify the communication’s legitimacy.
  • Use secure payment methods: Using credit cards or secure payment services can offer additional protection compared to other methods. Avoid direct money transfers or payments through insecure platforms and regularly monitor your statements for any unauthorised transactions.
  • Keep a record of your online transactions: whenever you buy something online, keep a record of your transaction details, such as the order confirmation, the receipt, the tracking number and the delivery date. This will help you track your order, verify your purchase and resolve any issues or disputes that may arise.
  • Stay informed: Regularly update yourself about the latest scams and fraudulent activities to stay one step ahead. Learn how to recognize phishing attempts and be skeptical of unexpected communications.
  • Update your antivirus software and firewall: one of the best ways to protect your device and your data from online threats is to use a reliable antivirus software and a firewall. These tools can help you detect and prevent malware, viruses, spyware, and other malicious software that can harm your device or steal your information. And don’t forget to regularly update these as new threats emerge every day.

Subscribe to Secure Net

Designed to provide increased safety and protection when on your GO home or mobile internet connection, Secure Net automatically identifies and blocks fraudulent websites, reducing the risk of cyberattacks of all sorts and other online threats, while through its parental controls, parents can block access to websites that may contain unsuitable content for their children.

Secure Net can be added to your existing internet connection or your pay monthly mobile plan for just €0.99/month and as an added bonus, we’ll give you the first 3 months for free. Find out more about Secure Net and how it can protect you.

While online shopping remains a convenient and rewarding experience, it’s crucial to stay informed about the potential risks. By understanding the tactics of scammers and adopting proactive measures, you can safeguard your personal and financial information. And remember, if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Take a look at how you can avoid phishing, malware and viruses, how to avoid phone and email scams and how to keep your personal data safe. In the meantime, if you have young kids, here is a guide about online security for kids.

Sources:
New FTC study data shows consumers reported losing nearly nearly $8.8 billion to scams in 2022