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Online Shopping Scams

VIDEO: Beware Online Shopping Scams

The share of shopping that consumers do online has been growing for years. E-commerce sales topped $1.03 trillion in 2022, an increase of 7 percent over the year before and the first time the number has surpassed $1 trillion, according to The Census Bureau of the Department of Commerce. 

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.

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Online purchasing is the most common scam type reported to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), accounting for 32 percent of complaints to the BBB Scam Tracker in 2022, 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; online shopping scams are the most commonly reported scam originating on social media, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

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.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

You need not forgo the ease and endless selection of online shopping, but take precautions to make sure you get what you pay for.

Warning signs

  • Bargain-basement prices. Internet security firm Norton says to be on guard if discounts exceed 55 percent.
  • Shoddy website design or sloppy English. Real retailers take great care with their online presentation.
  • Limited or suspicious contact options — for example, there's only a fill-in contact form, or the customer service email is a Yahoo or Gmail account, not a corporate one.
  • URLs with extraneous words or characters (most stores use only their brand name in web addresses) or unusual domains — for example, .bargain, .app or a foreign domain instead of .com or .net.
  • Sites that ask you to download software or enter personal information to access coupons or discount codes.
  • Sellers who demand payment by wire transfer, money order or gift card. They are scammers.
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How to protect yourself

  • Use trusted sites rather than shopping with a search engine. Scammers can game search results to lead you astray.
  • Comparison shop. Check prices from multiple retailers to help determine if a deal you’ve seen really is too good to be true.
  • Research an unfamiliar product or brand. Search for its name with terms such as “scam” or “complaint,” and look for reviews.
  • Check that phone numbers and addresses on store sites are genuine, so you can contact the seller in case of problems.
  • Carefully read delivery, exchange, refund and privacy policies. If they are vague or nonexistent, take your business elsewhere.
  • Look twice at URLs and app names. Misplaced or transposed letters are a scam giveaway but easy to miss.
  • Pay by credit card. Liability for fraudulent charges on credit cards is generally limited to $50, and some providers offer 100 percent purchase protection. Paying by debit card does not off offer such safeguards.
  • Don’t assume a retail website is safe because it is encrypted. Many scam sites use encryption, indicated by a padlock icon or “https://” in front of the URL, to provide a false sense of security. Use other means, including those listed above, to confirm if a site is legit.
  • Don’t provide more information than a retailer needs. That should be only your billing information and the shipping address.
  • Check that the site is well established, security software maker Norton recommends. Look for a copyright date, and use the WHOIS lookup service to see when a domain was created.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.