A shift toward online shopping during COVID-19, global supply chain crisis, and a resurging economy have all created a recipe for a breakneck holiday shopping season – one where online shopping fraud poses a tremendous risk to consumers.
Online purchase scams have skyrocketed during the pandemic, and social media ads play a key role in the mushrooming problem, a new Better Business Bureau study finds.
The in-depth investigative study – Theft on a Massive Scale: Online Shopping Fraud and the Role of Social Media – finds the pandemic, along with lax social commerce shopping platforms, has opened the door for scammers in China to steal from desperate online shoppers. Read the full study at www.BBB.org.
Online shopping fraud has been growing for several years, but according to BBB research, it dramatically increased during the pandemic as more people shopped online. A BBB survey found 29% of people shopped online before COVID, and this increased to 37% by the end of 2020.
In turn, BBB Scam Tracker reports about online shopping scams nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020, and the BBB Institute for Marketplace Trust named online shopping scams as the riskiest scam of 2020, publishing special reports on this growing fraud in 2020 and 2021.
Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about online purchases more than doubled in 2020 and continue to increase throughout 2021. Also, online shopping has more BBB “F”-rated companies than any other type of business.
Most online fraud reports examined involve a response to online ads on Facebook and Instagram. After placing an order, victims report receiving nothing or receiving items that were counterfeit or inferior to what the ads promised.
Scammers often take product photos or a landing page from legitimate businesses, post them on Facebook and Instagram and take online orders at websites they create. This leads to complaints against legitimate businesses, as victims often do not realize they have lost their money to a scammer rather than the business the scammer was portraying.
Counterfeit and pirated goods, the subject of a 2019 BBB investigative study, are rampant in online shopping scams. Other online fraud reports involve sites selling nonexisting pets, vehicle shipping schemes and deceptive free-trial offers.
A large number of online shopping complaints registered at the BBB and reports to BBB Scam Tracker can be traced back to Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram.
The BBB found it was common that people who were not actively looking for a product, but lost money in the transaction, began with Facebook or Instagram 70% of the time. Fraudsters understand how Facebook targets shoppers and have developed strategies to reach those likely to be interested in buying their bogus products.
Many victims and legitimate businesses believe that Facebook and Instagram should do more to prevent this widespread fraud. A recent federal class-action lawsuit against Facebook contends that it is complicit in fraudulent sales and fails to abide by its own policies in addressing them.
While credit cards are still the most frequent payment method in online scams, online scammers increasingly are requesting payment through PayPal. Credit cards and PayPal offer a degree of buyer protection by allowing buyers to dispute charges, although scam victims have reported difficulty getting refunds through PayPal.
In addition, scammers employ a variety of tactics to circumvent the dispute process, including exorbitant shipping costs to return items for a refund, supplying bogus shipping tracking numbers, and delaying the process in order to run out the clock for a dispute claim.
Online purchase scams originate from a variety of actors. Counterfeit goods operations, and those who sell goods online that are not delivered or send items significantly different from what was described, have been tracked to businesses or organized gangs, based in China. While the Chinese government has blocked its people from using Facebook’s social media platform in China, businesses there traffic counterfeit goods and spend billions to advertise on the site.
Pet scams are primarily operated by gangs from Cameroon. Vehicle scams have been traced to gangs from Romania and free trial offer scams have been found to be operated mostly by people in the U.S. and Canada.
Law enforcement actions mostly have been limited to scammers and their accomplices operating in the U.S. and Canada. In 2020, U.S. customs agencies seized $1.3 billion in counterfeit goods, arresting 203 individuals and securing 98 convictions.
Tips for avoiding online purchase scams:
Check out the website before making a purchase. Check BBB.org to check a business’s rating and BBB accreditation status. Some crooks may copy the BBB seal. If it is real, clicking on the seal will lead to the company’s BBB profile.
Scamadvisor.com can often tell you how long a website has been in operation. Scammers create and close websites regularly, so a site that has only been operating for a short time could raise red flags.
Do an internet search with the company name and the word “scam.” This may locate other complaints about the site.
Scrutinize reviews. Scammers frequently post positive reviews on their websites, either copied from honest sites or created by scammers. One resource to check reviews is at BBB.org; some review websites claim to be independent but are funded by scammers. Look at the bad reviews first. These are more likely to be real and can help identify scams.
Search for contact information. Use caution if the site does not have a U.S. phone number or uses a Gmail or Yahoo business email address.
Keep a record of what you ordered. Make a note of the website where you ordered goods. Take a screenshot of the item ordered in case the website disappears or you receive an item that differs from what was advertised.
Pay by credit card. Credit cards often provide more protection against fraud than other payment methods.
Report online shopping fraud to:
Better Business Bureau: File a complaint at BBB.org or report a scam at BBB.org/scamtracker.
Federal Trade Commission: File a complaint at reportfraud.ftc.gov or call 877-FTC-Help.
Internet Crime Complaint Center: File a complaint at ic3.gov/complaint.
Facebook: Report ads that violate Facebook’s policies by clicking the *** next to an ad to go to facebook.com/business/help.
Instagram: Report copyright infringement or other policy violations at help.instagram.com.
Amazon: Report suspicious activities and web pages at amazon.com.
Google: Report scams at google.com.
PayPal: Call (888) 221-1161 to speak with a live person instead of using its automated system if you receive an item that is not as advertised.
Your credit card company: Call the phone number on the back of the credit card to report the fraud and request your money back.
Kelvin Collins is president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving the Fall Line Corridor, which includes the Augusta-Aiken metro area. Direct questions or complaints about a specific company or charity to (800) 763-4222 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Kelvin Collins: Social media shopping scams flourish during pandemic