Online purchase scams are on the rise, warns the Better Business Bureau.

The 2021 labor shortage and supply chain issues are already causing many toys, electronics and other products to be in short supply. If you’re trying to make a purchase, you could become an unwitting victim of an online purchase scam, warns the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Online purchases make up more than a third of all scams reported to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), making online shopping and other purchases the riskiest scam type, according to the BBB. And there’s more bad news: You’re even at risk when just browsing and not actively making purchases.

With a troubled economy, plenty of companies are going out of business, so it may seem smart to save money on clothing or other retail goods if a retailer is throwing one last “going out of business” sale.

But what if that online ad offering huge discounts on designer clothing isn’t what it seems? The Better Business Bureau (BBB) Scam Tracker is getting more reports lately on self-proclaimed going-out-of-business sales “that either don’t exist or don’t live up to the hype,” according to the BBB.

Now the BBB is warning consumers that online purchase scams are spiking. “Product shortages and increased online shopping are likely to result in even more online purchase scams this year,” according to the BBB. “Shortages are likely to make purchase scams even more common as desperate shoppers turn to shady websites in hopes of finding this year’s must-have gift.”

There’s nothing like desperation to drive shoppers to take a few online purchase risks in hopes of getting their hands on out-of-stock products. But don’t be too quick to jump at just any seemingly great deal. “Scammers will find ways to take advantage of the situation by varying the product categories, capitalizing on what people are looking for online and focusing on the most sought-after gifts such as electronics, toys, and other trendy gift items,” says the BBB.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, online purchase scam reports have increased due to a significant rise in online shopping. So, the BBB surveyed consumers who reported shopping scams to find out more about how scammers swindle people shopping online.

Here’s what the BBB found out:

  • 64 percent of those surveyed were searching for a product when they lost money to an online shopping scam.
  • 36 percent of people who lost money to an online purchase scam were only passively looking — or not searching for potential purchases at all.
  • 32 percent of shoppers who placed an order said they received shipping tracking information that “seemed authentic.”
  • 36 percent received no shipping information at all from the online purchase scammer.
  • Some respondents didn’t worry at first because they assumed that shipping for products they purchased was delayed due to the pandemic.
  • Pets and pet supplies were the riskiest categories, and nearly 35 percent of all online purchase scams were pet related. Breed used for the most popular online pet purchase scam: The French Bulldog.

Take these steps to avoid online shopping scams

For the last three years, online purchase scams have been one of the top three riskiest consumer scams, according to the BBB.

“What I finally got in the mail after almost a month was two rubber seven-inch dolls that sort of looked like what they were advertising,” said the disappointed consumer in the BBB scam tracker complaint. “The items looked amazing online, but the store is a total scam.”

Think you can simply return the items for a refund if you’re duped by a scammer? Don’t count on it. “This company will not reply to their emails, which is the only way of communicating,” according to the BBB complaint.

But you don’t have to become an online purchase scammer’s next victim. Here are the BBB’s tips to prevent shopping scammers from pocketing your hard-earned money.

The retailer is unfamiliar

No one can know about every retailer in the world, but if you’re drawn to a clothing ad for a company you’ve never heard of, don’t be too quick to click the checkout button.

First, look up the company on the BBB website to see what kind of grade it maintains and read reviews. Also perform an online search for the company’s address and phone number to see information what pops up.

An online search reveals the retailer’s scammy reputation

When you put the company’s name in a search engine and three pages of consumer rip-off complaints appear in the results, don’t even bother researching that company further. Those people writing bad reviews are warning you to stay away to avoid your own bad experience.

Research the company and product

Around 57 percent of consumers who reported being victims of online shopping scams to the BBB said they didn’t research the website of business independently before making the purchase. Roughly 81 percent of those consumers reported losing money. Before you pull out your credit card to buy that hard-to-find item, perform an online search for the company selling the product. Type in the company name, along with “scam” and “reviews” in the search box to see what comes up in search results. You may learn that the company frequently fails to deliver the product on time or all or has terrible customer service — or even worse, no customer service options at all.

Find out: Don’t Fall for These Sneaky Package Delivery Scams 

Be wary of unusually low prices

“The top motivating factor for people who made a purchase and then lost money was price,” says the BBB. “Don’t shop on price alone.” If the toy you can’t find at any retail store usually sells for $60, but you find it online for $20, that deal is likely too good to be true. Don’t be in such a hurry to scratch the item off your list that you discard common sense. If the price is significantly lower than what other retailers are charging, hold off on buying the item until you’ve researched the company selling the product to make sure the business is legitimate.

Weirdly worded reviews

If you see an outfit or product you love at a great price, it’s a good idea to read reviews of the item first to gauge overall buyer satisfaction.  If you see review after review obviously written in a way no native English speaker would talk – “all retail happy shop experience,” for example – be careful.

Those reviews could be planted by the scammer company to reassure you that it is legitimate.

Don’t be fooled by fake websites

Watch for errors, inconsistencies, bad grammar, and spelling errors on the website. Those traits are a clue that you could be shopping on a fake website. Imposter websites abound, especially during the holidays when online shoppers are ready to spend lots of money. Online shopping is easy and convenient, as long as you get what you pay for. If you hurriedly order from a fake website, however, you could be in for a  headache.

A fake website could simply be after your personal information to use for identity theft purposes, for example. Or you could provide your credit card information, only to learn later that the account was used to make fraudulent purchases. Fortunately, fake websites have a few tip-offs that are easy to spot, once you know the red flags.

For starters, closely examine the domain name of the website that’s selling the product. Fake websites often use a domain name that is extremely close to the real business’s domain name. The domain name may be a couple of letters off or slightly misspelled, for example. Also keep an eye out for other red flags such as typos, bad grammar, and a date showing that the site was only recently created.

Avoid clicking on email links or ads,  instead, type the company directly into the address bar.

Only pay on secure websites

A website that’s secure will have “https” in the URL, with the extra “s” and a small lock icon showing you the site is secure. Never enter your credit card information if the URL doesn’t include those items.  If you don’t see “https” and a lock icon in the site address, the site is not secure. Move on to other, secure websites to make your purchases.

Find out: Watch Out for These Text Scams

Pay with a credit card

If you purchase from an online ad, don’t pay with anything other than your credit card. Never pay with your debit card, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, if you get ripped off by a scammer, credit card companies allow you to dispute the charges. However, you may not have that option if you pay with a debit card.

Also, if your credit card account is used to make fraudulent purchases, you’re only responsible for up to $50 of unauthorized transactions under the Fair Credit Billing Act. If a crook uses your debit card number to make fraudulent purchases, you could be liable for up to $500 or even the entire amount if you wait too long to report that someone is making fraudulent purchases.

Avoid impulse buys on social media

“Like marketers for real companies, scammers have access to the tools they need to learn about your buying behaviors, offering up exactly what you want at enticing prices,” says the BBB. It’s easy for scammers to track your buying behaviors and place ads that will catch your eye on Facebook or Instagram. You might think you’re multitasking by catching up with friends and family on social media while snagging a good deal via an ad that pops up on your page. Be careful, though.

Those enticing prices could be just a ploy to trick you into providing your credit card number or other personal information that scammers can use to steal your identity.

Find out: 7 Hacks to Help Stop Impulse Spending

What to do if you’ve been scammed

If you made a purchase that was unsatisfactory, file a complaint with the BBB. “If you never got what you paid for, consider reporting it to the BBB Scam Tracker to help other consumers avoid being scammed,” says the BBB. if You are worried you had your data stolen look out for these signs you’ve been a victim of identity theft.

When purchasing, you can always find great deals. However, it’s wise to stick with retailers you’re familiar with or companies recommended by trusted friends. There is no shortage of sales, so shop carefully, read reviews and research the company before buying from online ads.

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About the Author

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp is a full-time freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo. Deb went from being unable to get approved for a credit card or loan 20 years ago to having excellent credit today and becoming a homeowner. Deb learned her lessons about money the hard way. Now she wants to share them to help you pay down debt, fix your credit and quit being broke all the time. Deb's personal finance and credit articles have been published at Credit Karma and The Huffington Post.

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