6 ways to sniff out an online shopping scam

Before you hit checkout, check these telltale signs of a scam

Published July 14, 2022 7:59PM (EDT)

 (Julia Gartland / Food52)
(Julia Gartland / Food52)

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I recently fell victim to a scam while shopping for home decor online. The short version is that I ordered a set of decorative wall panels and waited several months for them to be delivered. Despite the company's repeated assurances that my package was en route, nothing was ever delivered, and when I asked for my money back, they told me they couldn't refund my purchase unless I returned the goods — which would have been tricky to do since I never received them in the first place.

In the end, I disputed the transaction with my bank and was thankfully able to get my money back, but it got me thinking about how convincing shady brands can be these days. They often have professional-looking websites and good marketing, and it can be hard to tell what's a scam and what's legitimate — even for someone like me, whose whole job revolves around the internet. After my latest experience with a duplicitous brand, I did some research on how to spot online scams, and I'm passing along the best tips to you, in hopes it saves someone from the frustration I went through.

1. Be wary of social media ads

We've all experienced it — you're browsing for new curtains, and all of a sudden, your Facebook and Instagram are filled with curtain ads from every brand under the sun. This is actually how I discovered the company that ultimately scammed me, and I've heard similar stories from friends who bought products through social media ads. Unfortunately, it takes very little effort for less-than-trustworthy brands to create convincing and well-targeted advertisements, so learn from my mistakes and do your due diligence before you buy from a company you've never heard of before. (The steps below are a great place to start!)

2. Look for an address and contact info

One easy way to find out if a company is legitimate is to look for a physical address. Virtually every company has a headquarters somewhere, and if you're unable to find a physical address, it's a pretty big red flag. Some small businesses might not have their exact address listed, but you can generally find some information about where they're based or where they ship from.

Similarly, be wary of brands that solely offer email as a contact method, as it's an easy way to cover up a shady operation. That's not to say all brands that don't list a phone number are scams — it's an increasingly common practice these days — but it's a good sign if you're able to call and speak to an actual person in customer service. If you're skeptical about a brand, you might want to call or email them before you buy and ask a few questions about the product to see how they respond.

3. Look for inconsistencies on social media

When I got hoodwinked by the aforementioned home decor brand, one of my biggest mistakes was not looking closely at their social media accounts. At a quick glance, they had more than 600,000 Instagram followers and a nicely curated feed, but when I went back and looked closer, there were some fairly large inconsistencies. Despite their huge following, most of their posts only had 100 or so likes, and there were very few comments. The comments I did see were often nonsensical and came from private accounts with just a few followers. These are all signs that a brand is purchasing followers, likes, and/or comments, and it doesn't bode well for their trustworthiness.

Some positive signs to look for on social media are people commenting about products they've actually purchased and tagging the brand in their own photos. Follower count isn't a huge factor by itself, but the brand's engagement level should be proportional to the number of followers it has — a small business with a few hundred followers shouldn't be getting thousands of likes, and a huge brand shouldn't only be getting a dozen.

4. Carefully check review sites

It's easy for companies to put fake reviews or remove negative reviews on their own website, which is why third-party review sites are often a more reliable source of information. In particular, I like to check out Trustpilot and the Better Business Bureau when researching a company I've never heard of before, as brands can't filter or have these reviews removed.

However, that said, take these kinds of third-party reviews with a grain of salt. Yes, they often highlight a brand's shortcomings — whether it's long shipping times, poor customer service, or poor product quality — but they can often paint an overly negative picture of the company. After all, people are much more likely to leave reviews when they're upset.

If you regularly shop from retailers like Amazon, you can also install a browser extension like Fakespot, which helps to identify products with fake reviews or websites that could potentially be a scam. When I ran my scammy home decor site through Fakespot, it warned me that there were "problematic transactions" and "multiple eCommerce scam experiences detected." Now, I use it on any unknown website before I buy.

5. Ask around

We all have a friend (or two) who does more than their fair share of online shopping — you know, the one who told you about Shein before it blew up and was shopping on Etsy before anyone else knew it existed — and it's worth asking if they've ever heard of the brand you're investigating. Even if they don't have insight on that particular company, they might be able to point you in the direction of a similar product and/or company that they do know and trust.

6. When in doubt, don't

If you ever have unanswered questions or just a bad feeling about an online retailer, err on the side of caution and buy from a company you know and trust instead. There are so many untrustworthy brands out there today, many of which look extremely convincing, and the last thing you want is to have your personal information, including credit card number, in the wrong hands.

By Camryn Rabideau

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