Shopping online is a fun and easy way to get the products you need. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, online shopping has boomed in popularity. But the more you click that ad and shop online, the higher the chances you’ll be involved in a scam.
Each year, tens of thousands of people in the Sitejabber community share stories of getting scammed. With scams abounding on the Internet, along with the growing amount of enticing social media ads, it can be hard to know who to trust or how to protect your information.
In conjunction with Michelle Marie of the Scam Alert Facebook group, we’ve gathered the information you need to know to stay safe while still enjoying shopping online. The Scam Alert Facebook group is 50k members strong and has helped thousands of shopping scam victims. How to tell if someone is scamming you online, how to check if a website is safe to buy from, is this website legit — we’ve included everything you need to know in this guide to spotting scam websites. This is the most comprehensive guide on the Web. No matter where you’re shopping, you can use this list as a scam checker. Read on to learn what you need to know about how to prevent fraud and stay safe shopping online.
Before we dive in, here are a few terms you need to know before reading through the rest of this piece:
Online shopping scams will do one of two things: They’ll collect your information and steal your money but won’t send you anything at all (also a form of phishing scam), or they’ll send low-quality products that don’t match up with the product descriptions. Either way, you’re taking a risk with your money.
A fake website is a site that was set up by scammers for the purpose of luring you in and stealing your information and/or money. In this guide, we’ll cover how to identify fake websites as you shop online.
Now that you’re prepared with the right vocabulary, let’s take a look at how to avoid scams and sniff out fake websites as you shop.
How can you tell if someone is scamming you online? Here are some red flags to keep in mind while shopping around the Internet. The more of these red flags you spot on a website, the warier you should be.
Before you start shopping, make sure the website is secure. There are a few different things to check. Does the website address (the URL in the bar at the top of your screen) have https:// or http:// at the beginning? The S at the end of https:// means “secure.” If you see an S, that means the website uses encryption to transfer data. It’s safe from hackers. If the web address uses http://, be wary. While this doesn’t automatically mean the website is a scam, it certainly ups the chances. Don’t give that site any of your personal information.
You can also look for connection security indicators, which go hand-in-hand with the https://. Most browsers will indicate for you whether a certain URL is safe. For example, if you’re surfing the web using Google Chrome, you can glance at the beginning of the address bar (right before the https:// portion of the URL) and see a small padlock. This padlock is a visual indicator of the https://. It means the website you’re on is secure. Other browsers might show you something called an EV Name Badge, which says “Verified Company [US]” and turns the address bar green.
These indicators can help you feel more certain that the connection is secure. Nobody is able to eavesdrop and steal your personal information on a webpage with these connection security indicators. However, while a given website might be secure, keep in mind the website could still be a scam designed to take your information.
Finally, you can check that your connection is safe by viewing the certificate details of the site. Click the padlock in the address bar and then click “View Certificate.” From there, you can do a little digging and find the website’s OV SSL certificate (which stands for Organization Validation, Secure Sockets Layer). This certificate includes verified business details and uses a technology that allows encrypted communication. If the business details match up with the site, the website you’re using is likely safe.
Look at the URL of the website to determine if the site is a scam. Often, scammers will use URLs that reference a well-known brand to trick you into thinking you’re actually surfing that site. Make sure you look closely at the web address so you aren’t fooled. Any shopping site that ends in .net or .org is also a potential red flag.
Scam websites often have poor grammar and obvious spelling mistakes. You may not have to be on guard for just a single typo. But repeated, obvious mistakes across the entire website should make you extremely cautious. If the website copy doesn’t sound like it was written by a native English speaker, but the site claims to be from an English-speaking location, that probably indicates a scam.
Another easy-to-spot sign is urgent language. Fake phishing websites and scam sites generally include language that’s very urgent because they’re trying to get you to act without thinking too hard. And if you notice sections of the website are incomplete, that’s a red flag, too.
If a website has a disproportionate amount of ads, this could signal a scam. Fraud websites often have an overabundance of advertisements. Repeated pop-ups and ads that direct you to other websites could both equal a scam. Virtually all websites have ads. But any website where the ads seem to outweigh the actual content is probably a no-go.
One of the best ways to check whether a website is valid is by taking a close look at the website’s contact info. The more information, the better — vague contact details should make you suspicious. If the company lists a phone number, give that number a call and see if a real person picks up. If the number doesn’t work, that’s a bad sign.
It’s also a red flag if the company doesn’t list any phone number at all. Be skeptical if the only contact options are via email or via a website contact form. You should be especially wary, Marie advises, if you don’t see anything besides a contact form. If you decide to go ahead with a purchase, you’ll want to make sure you can easily contact the company if anything goes wrong. And in most cases, a website contact form is not going to cut it.
A missing address should make you immediately suspicious. A legitimate company will clearly list its physical address on its website. If the website does include an address, do some sleuthing to figure out if the address is legitimate. Marie encourages Googling the address and using street view to take a look at the building. If the address turns out to belong to a personal residence or shipping company, the website is likely a scam. It’s also a bad sign if the same address (and/or the same phone number) comes up for multiple unknown websites.
Don’t do business with any website that uses unsecure payment methods. Legitimate websites accept major credit cards. Sometimes they’ll offer one or two other payment options as well, but credit cards are key. Turn and run if a website is insisting that you only:
All of these payment options have a couple of key things in common: The payments can’t be reversed, and they make it easier to fly under the radar. Legitimate websites don’t use these types of payment options. Make sure you’re able to pay for products with a credit or debit card. Then you may be able to get your money back if needed.
Does the website you’re looking at have a shipping and return policy? If not, that’s a big red flag.
If a return policy does exist, check carefully to make sure it seems legitimate — a policy that’s not up to the typical standard is also a red flag. A poor shipping and return policy might have extra fees; the stated days could be much too long; or the policy might feature cheap products with high shipping fees.
When it comes to scam shopping websites, the buyer will often be responsible for the return shipping cost — a number that won’t always be disclosed. Check a company’s shipping timeframe to see if their delivery times are over two weeks. If so, the products are most likely being shipped from China or internationally, even if the company claims to be local. The return costs could outweigh your entire purchase.
Finally, if the shipping and return policy appears to be copied and pasted from somewhere else, this is also a sign the website probably isn’t valid.
Since the new EU privacy laws went into effect, some websites have added an intellectual property violation page, telling you what to do if you think your intellectual property has been infringed. However, many of these websites are companies that not only copy these pages but copies products from other designers as well. So if you see this page come up, check to see if you can find the same designs on other websites as well.
A sometimes overlooked component of scam prevention is reading a website’s fine print. There are three primary red flags you need to look for: This information is missing, obscured, or unfavorable.
Finally, if you do find the terms and conditions, read that information carefully to make sure you aren’t placing yourself in a bad situation. For example, be wary of any company that doesn’t have a good refund policy. It’s in a company’s best interest to have a good refund policy; after all, if you know you’re able to return a product, you’ll probably spend more. So if a company doesn’t offer refunds, they may not be legitimate — and you’re definitely going to be shooting yourself in the foot if you make a purchase from them. Reading through a company’s terms and conditions takes a little extra time and due diligence. But it can be a valuable way to reveal some red flags.
Going out of business sales are tempting. When shopping from legitimate companies, you can often get a lot of good deals at these types of sales. But if the website or Facebook page you’re looking at is only a few days or weeks old, Marie advises, a going out of business sale is probably fishy.
If you’re looking at a Facebook ad, check how long their Facebook page has been around. You can see when a Facebook page was created in the “Page Transparency” box.
To find out how long a certain website has been in existence, research their domain name on ScamAdviser or WHOIS. Learning this information can help you stop scams and avoid phishing websites.
Check legit websites by using Google and third-party websites to read reviews of any site where you’re considering making a purchase. If you see high amounts of negative reviews; no reviews; or fake reviews, these are all bad signs.
Fake reviews generally come from new or unverified accounts. The reviews themselves tend to be short and somewhat difficult to read (as if English is not the reviewer’s first language). They focus on describing the product features rather than sharing personal stories. If a shopping website displays tons of 5-star reviews while shoppers are reporting it on other trusted third-party review sites, those glowing reviews are likely fake.
You can also run the URL of the website through ScamAdviser, BBB.org, Sitejabber, and similar tools to help you discern whether the website is trustworthy or whether it was created by Internet scammers.
In addition to investigating the website itself, you can also tell whether a website is legit by checking out what that website is selling. Here are some red flags you might notice with products.
The pricing on a website’s products can indicate whether that site is legitimate or fake. Take a second look if the pricing seems inconsistent or off in any way ($47.12, $12.47, etc.). If the pricing seems too good to be true, it probably is. In some cases, you’ll see free items that just ask you to pay shipping. However, the shipping cost might end up being more than the item itself is worth.
Familiarizing yourself with signs of stolen product photos can help you check if a website is legit. If you see inconsistent backgrounds or selfie-style photos, Marie says, those photos might have been lifted from a variety of sources. Products that look like they’ve been Photoshopped into the picture should raise another red flag. If you’re wondering about a certain photo, do a Google image search to find the original image and see how widely circulated it is.
Inconsistent sizing can signal a scam. Oftentimes, customers will order their usual size, but receive an item that is way too small. Marie says that if the product measurements or size chart on a website are extremely small, while claiming to be a local business, this is a red flag. However, scam websites may attempt to manipulate the measurements and size charts, so take the time to research what reviewers say about the company’s sizing. Don’t just trust the website’s reviews, always check a reputable third-party reviews platform.
Here are some actionable things you can do to check out any website you’re shopping at and avoid scams.
One good way to make sure a website is legitimate is by checking its privacy/trust seals and certifications. Trust seals are icons from companies who have verified that a certain website is legitimate. You might see the PayPal icon on a checkout page or a “Norton Secured” icon on a website homepage; the Better Business Bureau has an “Accredited Business” seal, too. These seals act as a signal that you’re safe. (Don’t be fooled by fake logos!) For further reassurance, click on these seals and read through the verified information, or contact the organization to make sure.
Avoid scams by using the WHOIS Lookup tool to view who owns a domain. WHOIS allows you to see when a domain name was registered and who owns the domain. If the domain you’re searching for is a well-established domain and the name matches up with the company it should, you’re golden. Otherwise, avoid that particular site.
A third party security software can help keep you safe while shopping online. Antivirus and cyber security software can be installed on your computer to detect threats and warn you away from malicious websites. While antivirus software is used to combat mostly phishing scams, online website scanners are also helpful tools that let you scan a website to see if it’s legitimate.
Google has done part of your work for you, scanning websites to detect and flag any malicious content. When Google finds a website that seems to be intended for scams, you’ll see a warning below the search engine result and/or when you click on the site. If you don’t see any visible warnings but you’re still feeling suspicious, use Google Safe Browsing to manually check a URL.
If you run across a scam, keep other consumers safe by writing reviews on Sitejabber and search engines like Google, or reporting them to the FTC and relevant authorities. These platforms are frequently used by consumers to report or double-check websites. On Sitejabber, it’s fast and easy to research brands and write a review of your experience to help others.
If you’ve already bought something and the product arrived not looking like you expected (or never arrived at all), don’t panic yet. You might get your money back. Report the scam to your banking or third-party platform as soon as possible and you may be able to get a refund.
Your best bet, however, is to double-check any website you’re shopping and avoid scams in the first place. It takes a little extra time to research the website where you’d like to shop. But investing that time up front will help you avoid losing money in the long run — and that’s something you’ll never regret.