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Online shopping scams and how to avoid them

Online shopping scams and how to avoid them

In hindsight, there were some red flags. But the offers on the barbecue website bbqarena.com.au were too good to pass up – several hundred dollars off a Weber barbecue. Enticed by the large (but not too large) discounts on a range of reputable brands and the site’s apparent legitimacy, numerous buyers clicked through to the purchase button.

They were then prompted to pay by bank transfer. Three weeks later, still no delivery. When they called to follow up, no one answered the phone and the website was ‘down for maintenance’.

Like more than 1000 other Australians in the first eight months of 2017, the would-be barbecue owners had been scammed by a fake online shopping site posing as the real thing. “Please don’t make the same mistake I did,” wrote one in an online forum recently.

“One important thing when buying online from an unknown (to you) seller is to ask on forums like this. More than likely someone else will have had some experience and advise a No Go,” wrote another.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) receives more reports each year about online shopping scams than any other scams.

Australians lost more than $700,000 this way in the first eight months of 2017 alone. While people of all ages are likely to fall victim – people aged 25 to 34 make up the largest category, with women more prone to being scammed than men.

Executive director of the Australian Retailers Association, Russell Zimmerman, this number is set to rise as online shopping gains popularity. Australians now spend about $24 billion a year shopping online, representing about 7.5% of all retail turnover.

Online shopping is predicted to increase to about 12% of turnover and then plateau. “Everybody is doing more online shopping – it means you don’t have to go out to get your goods,” Zimmerman says. “There are very strict guidelines in place for retailers in Australia, but often online you’re dealing with retailers from overseas.

The only real way to protect yourself is to either deal with someone who has been recommended to you, or deal with an organisation that’s readily recognised.”

The reality is, unlike face-to-face shopping, the very appeal of online shopping is its ease, and it’s this laid-back simplicity – and the lapse in caution that comes with it – that allows scammers to target and lure their victims into thinking they and their money are safe.

Avoid fake websites

The message is clear – online shopping scammers are successful thanks to their ability to hide behind fake websites. Using the latest technology, scammers can create a site that looks like a genuine online retail store. They will often advertise these sites on Google, so when you search for a product they will pop up at the top of your results page.

More often than not, these online stores are replicas of large Australian stores that you’re familiar with, created using stolen logos, or they have sophisticated, high-end designs. They may have a ‘.com.au’ at the end of the address, but their ABN will be fake.

Keep an eye on trading sites

Fake sellers are having alarming success posing as genuine sellers on trading sites, often advertising prices much lower than everyone else. They might also approach you through social media or email with appealing offers and posts of pictures of the item they are purporting to sell (often copied from someone else’s genuine advertisement).

The terms seem reasonable enough – pay up-front before receiving the item. Your suspicion isn’t aroused until you start getting excuses on why they can’t accept payment through the secure site – they say they are travelling or have moved overseas, for example – so they ask you to transfer funds directly to them.

Social media can be another scam

With its instant reach and availability, social media is driving another variation of online shopping scams. Buying beauty goods via social media has become particularly popular. When an online retailer called LuxStyle advertised its products on social media, people who were interested clicked through to their website, which would not display prices unless they entered their mailing and email addresses.

The scammers then posted goods to customers – unsolicited – along with an invoice. Those who ignored the invoice received a string of subsequent demands for money.

Others, like Hobart mother Asya Moussawi, sent the company an email querying the delivery, to which they replied by telling her to return the goods at her own expense.

A few days later, they suggested she could keep the cosmetics at a 50% discount – a price less than the cost of the postage to return them. When Asya refused, she received a string of emails and threats that the debt collectors would be sent round.

Have you been scammed? Let us know in the comments!

Written by Helen Signy. This article first appeared in Reader’s Digest. For more of what you love from the world’s best-loved magazine, here’s our best subscription offer.