The rise in e-commerce has, sadly, opened the door for a slew of online scams. Cybercriminals have set up fake online stores, selling everything from clothing to electronics and even pets. The explosion of user friendly e-commerce platforms, meant to simplify the process of setting up an online shop, has inadvertently fueled this trend.
What's concerning is that these helpful platforms are now exploited by scammers, allowing them to craft sites that look shockingly authentic. These fake sites are so well-made that even expert eyes can be fooled. And they're not just a local problem. These con artists operate on a global scale, creating multiple counterfeit sites across different languages and countries. This makes it an uphill battle to identify and shut them down.
In many cases, after a customer has paid, they either receive nothing at all or get something that's completely different from what they ordered. Even worse, they might end up with a fake version of the product they thought they were purchasing. And when they try to get a refund, they're met with a host of tricks from the scammers. These can range from being asked for more money to return the product, to drawn-out, frustrating conversations that go on until the scam site suddenly disappears.
Shopping scams are on the rise
Fake e-shops pose a significant threat to consumers, and they are now considered one of the top three most damaging online scams in terms of financial losses, according to the FTC, BBB (Better Business Bureau). At Norton, we've developed advanced AI algorithms specifically designed to distinguish between fake and legitimate e-shops. After months of deep investigations on detected fake e-shops, we were surprised to discover how rapidly they are spreading, popping up like mushrooms. Our engines detect more than 1,000 new fake e-shops that are emerging every day.
What's even more concerning is that scammers are successful in attracting a substantial amount of traffic to their deceptive websites. They achieve this either by placing ads on social media platforms or by using black-hat SEO techniques that allow them to rank high in search engine results for popular items. Our analysis illustrates a worrisome trend—a two-fold increase in the number of daily visits that fake e-shops have received since May 2023 compared to the beginning of the year.
Scammers don't limit themselves to specific product categories on their fake websites. Our analysis shows that these counterfeit e-stores span more than 20 varied categories, including clothing, luxury goods, electronics, furniture, and home and garden equipment.
Previously, scammers mainly baited victims using popular brand products. While this tactic remains, scammers are increasingly targeting small businesses and independent online sellers. This shift jeopardizes these smaller entities, who face financial and reputational harm when scammers pilfer images, text, and descriptions from their authentic sites.
Interestingly, fake e-stores that sell clothing attract the most traffic. Examining the most- frequented scam sites in the top 10 countries reveals that clothing, particularly women's apparel, is the primary lure in eight out of these 10 nations. The remaining two countries' top scams focus on electronics and home and garden items. This trend suggests consumers are especially drawn to these products, underscoring the need for heightened vigilance when online shopping for clothing and related goods.
How to identify a fake e-shop
Identifying fake e-shops can be challenging, even for experienced analysts. However, online shoppers should be on the lookout for the following tell-tale signs of a fake e-shop.
1. Unrealistic discounts
Scammers frequently entice victims with incredibly low prices, often claiming that the shop is closing or offering clearance deals. Beware of e-shops that offer products at significantly lower prices than the average market rates. If the deals seem too good to be true, they probably are. Also, exercise caution with e-shops that have blanket discounts on all their products, as this could be a red flag.
2. Fake reviews and endorsements
Consumers frequently use online reviews to guide their buying decisions. Recognizing this, scammers incorporate deceptive visual elements on their sites, mimicking endorsements and reviews typical of legitimate sites. For instance, scammers often fake endorsements by using images from third-party review platforms, such as TrustPilot, rather than featuring genuine, clickable star-based reviews.
For self-protection, consumers should cross-check reviews on independent platforms and even on social media. While considering reviews, take note of negative comments about undelivered items, counterfeit products, or challenging return policies. These can be warning signs of an untrustworthy e-shop. If an e-shop lacks reviews, consider searching for feedback using the company's name, often located on their "About Us" page.
3. Fake company information
If you encounter an e-shop without third-party reviews but are still contemplating a purchase, take the initiative to delve deeper into your research. Start by searching for the e-shop's business name and address online. Use mapping services to pinpoint the exact location. If you discover multiple, unrelated businesses linked to the same address or if the location is in a residential area, be wary; these can be a sign that's something is up.
Ensure the e-shop provides a contact phone number. Confirm its legitimacy by checking if it's active and genuinely associated with the business. A quick search engine check of the phone number and address can reveal if they've been reused across different, unrelated e-shops—a common tactic among scammers.
Exercise caution with e-shops that don't furnish vital details on their "About Us" or "Contact Us" sections. A reputable e-shop will transparently display information about their operations, including their physical location and how to contact them.
4. Unusual payment methods
When shopping online, it's best to steer clear of e-shops that accept uncommon payment methods like wire transfers, bitcoin, or gift cards. Instead, opt for secure payment options to protect yourself. Using well-known and trusted methods like credit cards, PayPal (with payment coming from a credit card, not a bank account), or secure online payment gateways can give you peace of mind and better chances of getting your money back in case of any unexpected issues.
Another tip? Stay vigilant for any errors that may occur during the payment process. These errors could potentially lead you to switch to other, less secure forms of payment.
5. Contradicting claims
Scammers might not always pay close attention to details, which can lead to contradictions inside their fake e-shops. For example, an e-shop may claim that all products are made and shipped from the same country as the buyer, but when you look at the shipping information, it might say that the products are actually coming from a different country. Another way to check for scams is to compare the information in the About Us or Contact Us sections with the products they are selling. Scammers often copy and paste unrelated information, which should raise a red flag.
6. E-shops selling everything
It’s common for major retailers to offer a wide range of products. However, smaller e-shops tend to have limited offerings and to run out of stock on some items. If you are visiting an e-shop you’ve never heard of before, that claims to sell everything under the sun and never seems to run out of stock, beware: this could be a trap for unsuspecting victims.
7. Stay safe online
Finally, for peace of mind, you can rely on our security products equipped with advanced AI algorithms specifically designed to detect fake e-shops. Our tools are trained precisely for this purpose, ensuring you have a secure and worry-free online shopping experience.
What to do if you fall victim to an e-shop scam
If you've transacted with a fake e-shop and faced issues like not receiving the item, receiving the wrong product, or receiving a substandard product, you have the right to dispute the transaction and request a refund. The process may vary depending on the payment method you used.
Request a refund
If you paid with a credit or debit card or via wire/bank transfer, immediately contact your bank or credit card network (e.g., Visa, Mastercard) and file a chargeback request. The process might vary depending on your bank or network, and there is usually a time limit (typically 30 to 120 days) within which you can file a chargeback request.
If you used Paypal, you can request a refund directly from the seller following these steps. If the seller doesn’t respond and you are within 180 days of the payment date, you can open a dispute on Paypal Resolution Center.
Be aware that contacting a fake e-shop directly for a refund may result in deliberate delays. To avoid this, it's recommended to initiate the refund process through your payment method following the steps mentioned above. During this process, gather any evidence (such as invoices) that can support your case.
Report fake e-shops
Once you take the necessary actions to recover your losses it is equally important to report the fake e-shop to the authorities, consumer protection agencies, and the security community to protect other people from falling victims of the same scam. Consider taking the following actions:
- If you found the e-shop via social media (e.g., Facebook, Instagram) go and report the profile of the fake e-shop on the social media platform. Leaving a negative review on the profile can be also useful.
- Consider leaving a negative review on a third-party review platform like Google, Trustpilot, Sitejabber, and others to warn other potential victims.
- You should also make a report to the authorities and any consumer protection agencies in your country.
- And last but not least, please report the scam to Norton so that we can analyze it and improve our defense mechanisms.