Steer Clear of Rip-offs: Top Tips for Safer Online Shopping

Everyone loves a great deal when they shop online. Until they discover it’s a rip-off. 

Social media ads for vintage wear. Website ads for home entertainment gear. Search ads for handbags. Some of these ads aren’t what they seem. Instead of leading you to deals on a trustworthy ecommerce site, the ads take you to a bogus page designed to steal your money and personal info. 

Unfortunately, it happens. And one global report estimated that online shoppers lost $41 billion to fraud in 2022. How do scammers pull it off? With the same tools that legitimate businesses use.  

Let’s look at how they do it and how you can steer clear of their tricks. 

Organized cybercrime in your cart 

Many of today’s scammers work in organized fashion. They oversee large cybercrime operations that run much like a business. They employ web designers, coders, marketing teams, and customer call centers that mimic a genuine online retailer. Which makes sense. The more they can look and act like the real thing, the more likely they can lure victims into their online stores. 

Smaller bands of scammers get in on this action as well. Just as a small business can easily create an online store with any number of off-the-shelf services and solutions, so can a couple of scammers. 

In this way, scammers large and small can readily create a professional-looking website, create effective ads to drive traffic to it, and collect financial information from there.  

Yet, some scammers don’t steal financial information outright. They might indeed ship you the goods, but they won’t be the goods you ordered. They’re counterfeit. And it might be part of a large-scale operation that exploits child workers.  

Whether they’re out to steal your money or sell you knockoff goods, online shopping scams tend to ramp up around gift-giving seasons. They’ll bait shoppers with hard-to-find items, tout steep discounts on other popular items, and otherwise play into the rush of holiday gift buying. Yet they crop up year-round as well. Really, any time you shop is a time to be on the lookout for them.  

Top tips for safer shopping online 

1. Stick with known, legitimate retailers online. 

This is a great piece of advice to start with. Directly typing in the correct address for online stores and retailers is a prime way to avoid scammers online. In the case of retailers that you don’t know much about, the U.S. Better Business Bureau (BBB) asks shoppers to do their research. Ensure that the retailer has a good reputation. The BBB makes that easier with a listing of retailers you can search by typing in their name.  

Also in the U.S., you can visit the website of your state’s Secretary of State. There you can search for the business in question, learn when it was founded, if it’s still active, or if it exists at all. For businesses based in a state other than your own, you can visit that state’s Secretary of State website for information. For a state-by-state list of Secretaries of State, you can visit the Secretary of State Corporate Search page here. 

For a listing of businesses with international locations, organizations like S&P Global Ratings and the Dun and Bradstreet Corporation can provide background information. 

2. Research new sellers for their history and reviews. 

Never heard of that retailer before? See when they launched their website. A relatively new site might be a sign that it’s part of a scam. 

A quick visit to the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) website can show you certain background information for any website you type in. Given how quickly and easily scammers can register and launch a website, this kind of information can help you sniff out a scam.   

Of course, it might also indicate a new business that’s entirely legitimate, so a little more digging is called for. That’s where reviews come in. Aside from the resources listed above, a simple web search of “[company name] reviews” or “[company name] scam” can help you find out if the retailer is legit. 

3. Look for the lock icon in your browser when you shop. 

Secure websites begin their addresses with “https,” not just “http.” That extra “s” stands for “secure,” which means that it uses a secure protocol for transmitting sensitive info like passwords, credit card numbers, and the like over the internet. It often appears as a little padlock icon in the address bar of your browser, so double-check for that. If you don’t see that it’s secure, it’s best to avoid making purchases on that website. 

4. Pay with a credit card instead of your debit card. 

Credit cards offer fraud protections that debit cards don’t. Another key difference: when fraud occurs with a debit card, you fight to get your money back—it’s gone straight out of your account. With a credit card, the issuer fights to get their money back. They’re the ones who take the financial hit. 

Additionally, in the U.S., the Fair Credit Billing Act offers the public protection against fraudulent charges on credit cards. The act gives citizens the power to dispute charges over $50 for goods and services that were never delivered or otherwise billed incorrectly. Note that many credit card companies have their own policies that improve upon the Fair Credit Billing Act as well. However, debit cards aren’t afforded the same protection under the Act. Avoid using a debit card while shopping online and use your credit card instead. 

5. Use two-factor authentication on your accounts. 

Two-factor authentication is an extra layer of defense on top of your username and password. It adds a one-time-use code to access your login procedure, typically sent to your smartphone by text or call. Together, that makes it tougher for a crook to hack your account. If any of your accounts support two-factor authentication, the few extra seconds it takes to set up is more than worth the big boost in protection you’ll get. 

6. Use a VPN if you’re shopping on public Wi-Fi. 

Public Wi-Fi in coffee shops and other public locations can expose your private surfing to prying eyes because those networks are open to all. A virtual private network (VPN) encrypts your browsing, shopping, and other internet traffic. That makes it secure from bad actors who try to intercept your data on public Wi-Fi, which can include your passwords and credit card numbers. 

7. Protect your devices for shopping. 

A complete suite of online protection software like McAfee+ can offer layers of extra security while you shop. It includes web browser protection that can block malicious and questionable links that might lead you down the road to malware or a phishing scam— along with a password manager that can create and securely store strong, unique passwords. 

Avoiding shopping rip-offs on social media 

Social media has made it easier for sellers large and small to reach customers online. It’s made it easier for scammers to reach victims too. 

If you’re on social media, you’ve certainly seen your share of ads. Some are from companies and retailers you know and trust. Yet more are from names you’ve likely never heard of. They might be legitimate businesses, yet they might be fronts for a convincing-looking scam. 

These ads end up on social media the same way ads from legitimate businesses do, by way of social media ad platforms. Social media companies created these platforms so advertisers can reach millions of individual users based upon their age group, hobbies and interests, past purchases, and so on.  

For example, a scammer might target younger shoppers with an interest in retro fashion. From there, the scammer can narrow that down to target people who live in metropolitan areas who like 1980s memorabilia. The scammers then create an ad that takes that audience to a phony website loaded with bogus t-shirts, coats, and bags. 

All of it costs relatively little. A small ad budget of a few hundred dollars can give scammers exposure to millions of potential victims. 

The best way to avoid getting stung by these sites is to do your homework. Seek out the company’s track record. Look for reviews. And if you’re unsure, take a pass. Don’t shop with that company. 

Buyer be wary … 

Shopping scams can look and feel rather sophisticated today. With a host of low-cost and easy-to-use tools for publishing and advertising online, scammers of all sizes can create bogus shopping experiences that look convincing. 

So buyers be wary. Before you click or tap on that ad, do some research. Determine if the company is legitimate, if it’s had complaints waged against it, and how those complaints were resolved. And always use your credit card. It offers the best consumer protections you have in the event you do end up getting scammed.  

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