Beware: Online Holiday Shopping Traps – Part One: Phony Shopping Websites

November 19, 2013

USAA.com

It doesn't matter if it's the day after Thanksgiving or the night before Christmas, cyber criminals don't take a holiday. Thieves are in the business of stealing money and, especially during the holiday season, online shoppers can be vulnerable prey.

"People are spending with reckless abandon this time of year," says Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate . Consumers are always looking for deals, he says, and in their zeal they can miss the warning signs of an online scam. "Their filter is broken," Elliott warns.

To avoid falling victim to these creative crooks, watch out for these common cyberscams.

1. Fake Shopping Sites

With all the hype about Black Friday and Cyber Monday, consumers go into shopping mode expecting to find good deals. If you cybershop, you can get sucked in by websites selling counterfeit goods, or overseas-based sites that take your money and provide nothing in return.

Whether it's trendy boots, designer watches or sneakers, you can be sure some crook somewhere has already set up a site intended to grab folks who search for brand names and buzzwords, such as "sale," "discount" or "cheap."

"Deals that are too good to be true are a huge red flag, even on big shopping days like Black Friday," warns Scambook.com, a site that collects consumer complaints.

To help protect yourself:

  • Take care where you click. Never follow links sent by email. If you're going to follow search engine results, learn about the site before you make any purchases from it or provide any personal information.
  • Pay attention to site names. Watch out for sites with names that sound similar to popular sites or include a brand name in the URL. Research the site by typing its name into a search engine, such as Google, with the word "complaints" and see what comes back, suggests the federal government's OnGuardOnline. You can also put the name in the Better Business Bureau database. If you don't find anything wrong, that doesn't necessarily mean you're home free. It could indicate the site was recently created. Scam sites often pop up overnight and quickly disappear when enough people catch on. SiteJabber.com publishes user reviews of sites that can make clear when you're dealing with a shady operation.
  • Stick with the tried-and-true. Use sites that are well-established and that you know to be legitimate. When buying brand-name products online, look for a list of authorized sellers.

2. Buying Through Online Auctions or Classified Sites

If you're looking for a deal or an offbeat item, turning to online auctions or classified sites could make sense. But they are also home to numerous scams. The traps can be set several ways, but, in the end, the rip-off typically will involve a request for you to send money through an electronic money transfer service (Western Union or MoneyGram, for example) or via a prepaid debit card. The reason: They're the same as cash once they've been sent. So the chances of recovering a loss are tiny.

To help protect yourself:

  • Use a credit card when buying online. Credit cards can protect consumers against fraud.
  • Beware of money transfers. Don't make a payment using a money transfer service to anyone you don't personally know, and use the same caution when asked to pay with a prepaid debit card.
  • Don't pay upfront. If you're buying something locally, pay upon receipt of the item.

Next week will focus on how to identify phony online deals and offers such as free gift card giveaways and free hotel offers on vacation travel. Until then, visit www.consumerfed.org/fraud to read helpful tips or watch a video about how scammers are exploiting new forms of payment such as prepaid cards. Keeping yourself educated on the various online shopping scams is the best way to ensure that your holidays do not become an online horror.

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