The share of shopping that consumers do online has been growing for years. E-commerce sales topped $870 billion in 2021, an increase of more than 50 percent from 2019, according to retail research firm Digital Commerce 360.
Cybercriminals are keeping pace. An AARP survey of 2,012 U.S. consumers 18 and older, found that more than a third of respondents have experienced fraud when trying to buy a product through an online ad.
Online purchasing is the most common scam type reported to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), accounting for 37 percent of complaints to the BBB Scam Tracker in 2021, and the riskiest, with 3 in 4 victims reporting a monetary loss.
The typical shopping scam starts with a bogus website, mobile app or, increasingly, a social media ad (a BBB study found that 40 percent of online shopping scams reported to the organization originate on Facebook or Instagram).
Some faux e-stores are invented from whole cloth, but many mimic trusted retailers, with familiar logos and slogans and a URL that’s easily mistaken for the real thing. They offer popular items at a fraction of the usual cost and promise perks such as free shipping and overnight delivery, exploiting the premium online shoppers put on price and speed.
Some copycats do deliver merchandise — shoddy knockoffs worth less than even the “discount” price advertised as a once-in-a-lifetime deal on, say, Tiffany watches or Timberland boots. More often, you’ll wait in vain for your purchase to arrive.
Your losses might not stop there: Scammers may seed phony sites, apps or links in pop-up ads and email coupons with malware that infects your device and harvests personal information for use in identity theft.
Not surprisingly, these frauds flourish during the holiday season and major shopping events such as Amazon's Prime Day. Seasonal super sales bring a plethora of deceptive ads, phishing messages and look alike shopping sites, the BBB warns.